Bliss and blunder in a time of change

The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam Chatto & Windus, £15.99, 298pp
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The Independent Culture

Jane Gardam has long been a specialist in the frets and intoxications of adolescence, and her latest novel returns to this beguiling topic. She also returns to the summer of 1946, a seaside town in Yorkshire, and the fortunes of three young girls in the overbrimming months between school and university. The schoolfriends are Hester (Hetty) Fallowes, Una Vane and Lieselotte Klein, the last a German-Jewish refugee.

Jane Gardam has long been a specialist in the frets and intoxications of adolescence, and her latest novel returns to this beguiling topic. She also returns to the summer of 1946, a seaside town in Yorkshire, and the fortunes of three young girls in the overbrimming months between school and university. The schoolfriends are Hester (Hetty) Fallowes, Una Vane and Lieselotte Klein, the last a German-Jewish refugee.

All three are, in a sense, casualties of war, the two English girls because their fathers have come home shell-shocked from the trenches. Unfitted for ordinary life, one has opted for employment as an intellectual grave-digger; the other bowed out of life altogether when his daughter was nine. "There were odd folk everywhere after 1918," observes Gardam's earlier novel Crusoe's Daughter.

Lieselotte, a more direct casualty, had arrived on the last trainload of refugee children in summer 1939. When the novel opens, letters have just announced that all three girls have gained state scholarships to university: two to Cambridge and one to London.

Family relations, whether overwhelming or all but obliterated, are important to the plot, leading each of the trio to veer off in a particular direction. Hetty goes to the Lake District to bone up on the English classics; Una to various remote Youth Hostels with her cycling companion, Ray; and Lieselotte first to London, then the West Coast of America, as the time of transformation gets going.

The Flight of the Maidens is (among other things) about ways of achieving emancipation, and the price exacted. "Youth is a blunder" reads the epigraph (by Disraeli) to Jane Gardam's novel Bilgewater. A certain amount of juvenile blundering and miscalculation goes on here. At times, the narrative rushes into a kind of hectic bottleneck mode, though counteracted by the sheer buoyancy of the undertaking. The separate journeys take in a few of the agitated confrontations the author does so well: between her central characters and imposing, mad old people, or outspoken young ones.

Hetty, among the mountains and lakes, first stumbles on a table on which reposes a copy of The Perfumed Garden, and then comes face-to-face with a scatty family named Fitzurse. Una, meanwhile, is failing to relinquish her virginity owing to constant interruptions in the hostels. Lieselotte is acquiring a refurbished persona, and coming to her senses in a wood near the Pacific, where - in the manner of a fairy tale - a German banker befriends her and arranges her return to Cambridge to take up her place.

All this, and more, is recounted in the author's usual luminous and anarchic style. The effect is exhilarating, as though the scouring winds of Yorkshire were tempered by a spicier breeze. Jane Gardam, as ever, shapes her narrative with wit and aplomb; this novel - her eighth - is intelligent, inspiriting and entertaining.

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