Friday, March 6, 2020

The Fifties Mystique

After almost eight years as host of New Books in Historical Fiction, I’m in the delightful position of receiving more books from publishers and publicists than I can ever hope to cover in my podcast interviews—at least until I retire and can bump up the number to one a week instead of a couple of times a month. Meanwhile, my attempts to sustain regular blog posts require a constant stream of new material. This happy coincidence bears fruit this week in a pair of summaries of books too new even to have made it onto my most recent quarterly Bookshelf post—although now that I think of it, spring is not far away, meaning that the springtime roundup should follow early next month.

Both books came to me from William Morrow, a steady supplier of great historical fiction whose efforts I greatly appreciate. Otherwise, the two novels have little in common except that the main action takes place in 1951–52 and features a quite ordinary woman who finds herself in circumstances she didn’t anticipate, confronting secrets that threaten to undermine her family and her own peace of mind.


Kayte Nunn’s The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant came out this past Tuesday, March 3. In 2018, Rachel Parker, a young marine biologist, leaves New Zealand for a research project counting clams on the Scilly Isles, off England’s southwestern coast. When her boat goes down in a storm, she winds up on an almost deserted island where she discovers a cache of unsent letters written more than sixty years before. But who was the writer, and who the unknowing recipient?

The novel shifts back and forth between Rachel’s academic and romantic journey and the attempts by a young Londoner named Eve to record the memoirs of her grandmother, one of the first female mountaineers. But the heart of the story is Esther Durrant, first seen traveling with her husband to the Scilly Isles in 1951, where she wakes up the next morning and discovers that her husband has left her in the care of his friend, an innovative psychiatrist who treats a handful of patients—mostly male war veterans—in what is, to all intents and purposes, a mental institution on the island. Esther suffers from depression caused by the loss of her infant son to SIDS, a condition not yet named and recognized in 1951, and the doctor believes that life on the island may help her come to terms with her loss.

Esther, Rachel, and the people they encounter are richly imagined, complex characters, and the atmosphere of the isolated and largely depopulated islands that bring both Esther and Rachel, in a sense, back into the world is both pervasive and haunting. Also visible are the long-term effects of World War II, six years ended by the time the book opens, on the men who fought. The hidden secrets, where Eve and her grandmother fit in, and the identity of the letter writer you will have to find out for yourselves.


In some ways, Gretchen Berg’s debut novel, The Operator, which is due out next week but already available to preorder, couldn’t be more different. Here the war forms at most part of the backdrop, which matches the vastly different experience of war in Europe and the American Midwest.

Set in Ohio, The Operator begins in 1952 but moves backward and forward in time to include the childhood and early womanhood of its heroine, Vivian Dalton. Unlike Esther Durrant, who has a college education and lives a relatively affluent life in London, Vivian has to leave school in her early teens to help support her family through the Great Depression. She lands a job as a telephone operator, an occupation that from the standpoint of 2020 seems as archaic as that of coal stoker for a steam-powered locomotive.

Yet at the risk of dating myself, I can remember the first in-house telephone my parents owned when I was a child. It had no rotary dial and certainly no keypad. It was merely a handset, which you picked up. When the operator answered, you gave the number you were calling—Oxford 402, say—and the operator made the connection, just as Vivian does in this novel. Not surprisingly, perhaps, operators could listen in on the calls, although they were supposed to do no such thing.

And that’s exactly what Vivian is doing when she hears gossip that personally affects her family. And although the secret, when it’s finally revealed, is itself a relic of the 1950s which it’s hard to imagine having quite the same impact in our scandal-ridden and “everything out in the open” time, like all hidden truths it has consequences that no one could have predicted when the events first happened.

Here too the writing is vivid and engaging, Vivian and her trials and triumphs (not least with her older sister, Vera) beautifully realized and sympathetic, and this glimpse of a time that is irretrievably gone yet still with us in the form of older relatives and friends bittersweet.

As a professional woman, I can’t say that I’ve ever dreamed of returning to the 1950s, and some of the incidents in these novels remind me of why. But as virtual journeys to an almost forgotten and perhaps unmourned past, these books offer excellent reads.

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