Paperback reviews: A Separate Peace, The Lives of Stella Bain, Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, The Ladies of Lyndon, Confessions of a Ghostwriter


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The Independent Culture

A Separate Peace by John Knowles (Simon & Schuster £7.99)

The conventions of stories featuring close friendships between adolescents have reached the level of cliché, so familiar are we now with the sinister side of youthful attachments. But when John Knowles first published this novel in 1959, those conventions were less familiar and the suggestions of unhealthy closeness leading to fatal results more shocking.

What today’s readers might find more interesting, rather than the sometimes simple and predictable trajectory of the friendship between quieter, cleverer Gene and the daring, attractive Phineas, who become friends at their New England boarding school one summer, is when this story is set: during the Second World War. The boys are all aware of the war but Phineas alone decides it does not exist, that it is a conspiracy cooked up by their political leaders. His rejection of it helps create that “separate peace”, the illusion that their summer at this apparently idyllic boys’ school is somehow a haven from hate and death. But why does Phineas feel the need to do that? Is he the only one seeking to preserve the boys’ innocence, even as he pushes them to compete with one another?

What Knowles does subsequently, and with great skill and sensitivity, is to establish an uneasy mirroring of the war and the boys’ exploits, a mirroring which becomes even more disturbing when one of them, called Leper, leaves school to fight and becomes traumatised by what he sees. The loss of the boys’ innocence, both through what happens to Phineas after he falls from a tree branch and breaks his leg, and through the events taking place in the world outside their school, is the most obvious part of Knowles’s story. But within that theme lie other strands: a primeval urge to hurt, a conservative resistance to change, the failure of justice.


The Lives of Stella Bain by Anita Shreve (Abacus £7.99)

Shreve’s First World War novel tells the story of the conflict from the commendably more unusual perspective of a young woman who has been caught up in events in France and injured badly. She is an American ambulance driver, but she can remember nothing about herself except her name, and that she must get to the Admiralty in London. What follows is a slightly more experimental novel from Shreve, her story told in the present tense, but it becomes rather more of a conventional love story than the beginning might suggest. Rather implausibly, after she recovers and makes it to London, she falls ill outside a house where a cranial surgeon just happens to live. This coincidence frames the novel, as it allows her to confide her life story, or what she remembers of it, to the expert Dr Bridges, and so to us. Whether you accept this coincidence or not therefore tends to control the success of the novel as a whole, rather than the character of Stella herself, or her own back story, which is something of a pity.


Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations by Peter Dvans and Ava Gardner (Simon & Schuster £9.99)

In the late 1980s, Ava Gardner, who was living in London, asked Peter Evans, the biographer of such stars as Brigitte Bardot and Peter Sellers, to “ghost her memoirs”. What followed was late-night drunken phone calls, rambling interviews and arguments, lots of swearing, and lots of recounting of her sex life. This latter subject occupies the bulk of Gardner’s account of her life, and it makes for very juicy reading, but Evans was right to press her about her early life in Hollywood and how she made it, which is far more interesting and revealing. Gardner eventually pulled the plug on the project, and it was shelved until after her death. It is a startling account of how one deals with film stars, and how their stories are told.


The Ladies of Lyndon by Margaret Kennedy (Vintage Classics £7.99)

Margaret Kennedy, who died in 1967, is probably better known for the novel that followed this, The Constant Nymph, which was made into a film three times. It is a pity, because this is an extraordinary debut – assured, wide-ranging and thoughtful. Agatha Cocks once had a youthful love affair with her cousin, Gerald. Her family put a stop to it and now, older and wiser, she marries the more suitable John Clewer. But Gerald comes back into her life as war begins. What looks, however, like a conventional tale of love among the aristocracy is actually quite a subversive story about class, and its real centre is carried by James, John’s younger brother, whom we would probably recognise today as suffering from autism.


Confessions of a Ghostwriter by Andrew Crofts (The Friday Project £7.99)

The problem with this account by ghostwriter Andrew Crofts lies largely with one word in the title: “confessions”. In many of the situations he highlights here, he just cannot reveal the true identity of who it is he has written for, or is talking about. Instead, we get faintly tantalising glimpses of celebrity types whose stories either make it to the page or don’t, and this can be frustrating. As indeed are the vignettes which don’t seem to go anywhere, like the short piece about mice eating the nuts on his computer desk. A deeper investigation into the kind of power that being a ghostwriter grants, and gives away, might have been fruitful. But most of these observations are slight and rather obvious.