Friday, 7 March 2014

'The Sun's Companion' by Kathleen Jones

‘Tamar Fell’s a bastard! Tamar Fell’s a bastard!’ Bertie McAffery was jumping up and down on the pavement in front of her, ginger hair flopping over his forehead, mouth pulled wide, screwed into a goggle-eyed gurning face as he taunted her...

The opening sentences of The Sun’s Companion are indicative of what is to come. Kathleen Jones tells her story with unflinching honesty, never shying away from the occasional cruelty of both life and people; but her beautiful use of language, vivid narrative, and compassion make for a satisfying and poignant (but never maudlin) story.

How can I describe this novel? My first thought would be that it falls under the umbrella of literary fiction, though admittedly there’s some debate about what exactly literary fiction is (I feel another blog post coming on...). Is it, then, general fiction? Genre fiction? – no, probably not, though it shares elements of both romance and historical fiction.

Of course, none of this matters in the slightest. It’s undeniably useful for booksellers to be able to classify products, but most of us care less about how a book is labelled than whether it’s a good story. And The Sun’s Companion is a very good story indeed.

It’s 1935, and the shadow of Nazism is beginning to spread across Europe. In England, young Tamar Fell is eking out a precarious existence with her reckless mother Sadie. Together they move from town to town, from lodging house to lodging house, constantly running from debt, failed jobs and relationships, and their neighbours’ disapproval. Tamar has no other family that she knows of; her father, she has been told, is dead. Tamar, though she loves her mother, yearns for stability and a family, and feels suffocated by the limitations imposed on her by her upbringing and circumstances.

Meanwhile, in Germany, another girl, Anna, is also coming to terms with being an outcast. Being ethnically Jewish, even though she doesn’t feel herself as such – her mother is English, her father a German Jew who converted to Christianity – she is the frequent target of the taunts, and worse, of her one-time neighbours and schoolfriends. Early in the novel, her English mother takes the momentous, desperate decision to take Anna to live in England, leaving her father and other relatives behind.

Anna’s new home in North Shields is, however, not a great improvement from her point of view. She is homesick, and misses her father. She feels like an outsider in the strange surroundings of the industrial North, and does not have a particularly close relationship with her mother or grandparents. Her only real pleasure is painting, which gradually becomes both her passion and her projected career path.

She and Tamar have dissimilar characters, and come from very different backgrounds, but when they meet they soon become close friends. Their situations, after all, do mirror each other to an extent: both are outsiders, and both have ambitions that are stifled by their circumstances. We follow their intertwined stories through the late 30s and early 40s, as Europe tips over the brink into war. Jones charts the war’s effects on their lives and their relationships as they grow into women; we learn about their first loves, their stifled ambitions, and their attempts to make their own lives in difficult circumstances. Both characters are vividly-drawn and realistic; Anna, with her sharp tongue and barely-suppressed inner rage, is not always pleasant, but she is ultimately always sympathetic.

Also vivid and lifelike is the novel’s background of wartime North Shields and rural Cumbria. The story takes us to various and quite diverse places – grimy lodging houses, internment camps and lonely farms, to name but a few – and all are realistically drawn, and immediate. A great deal of research must have gone into The Sun’s Companion, but – as with so many good books – the sheer hard work is lightly worn, and barely noticeable.

Honest, engrossing, moving but never sentimental – The Sun’s Companion is highly recommended.