The Great Western Beach, by Emma Smith

Sun and shadow in a Cornish childhood

Readers with educated 1950s girlhoods will need only the prompt "Maiden's Trip" to pounce on this book and retire to a quiet sand dune for the afternoon. Emma Smith's 1948 memoir of a war spent ferrying narrow-boats along the Grand Union Canal had a generation of nicely brought-up gels itching for adventures. After a cruelly long interval, she has now produced this account of her childhood.

For her first 12 years, Emma – then called Elspeth – Hallsmith lived in Newquay on the north coast of Cornwall. Now a less than elegant resort associated with adrenalin sports and Jamie Oliver, Newquay between the wars had pretensions to gentility. This was reflected in the social hierarchy of its three main beaches – Towan rough, Tolcarne smart, the Great Western middle class – and typified in the exclusivity of its golf and tennis clubs.

Captain Guthrie Hallsmith DSO, Elspeth's terrifying father, was an artist obliged to find work as a bank clerk. Mrs Hallsmith was a beautiful nurse who married him on impulse after war and disease had claimed two fiancés. The couple were mismatched, her popularity doomed to make him hate her all the more, his poverty and failure to make him resent his hapless children.

A maid, a beach and a sense of humour stop this becoming a middle-class misery memoir. The family's glue is their maid, Lucy, whom the children adore. The beach, with its breakers, pools, huts, endless supply of strangers and sexily outlawed Italian ice-cream merchants, is the children's playground and salvation. Elspeth's humour, combined with curiosity about adults, transforms her childhood into a spicy succession of eccentrics and romantics.

The three houses the family inhabits give the book a structure. They begin in a lowly, gardenless bungalow, progress to a smarter terrace and end up – courtesy of a legacy – in a relatively grand villa. With the unsparing eye of childhood, proudly masked poverty is laid bare – the homemade frocks, the nettles gathered for soup – as is a complex system of prejudices.

Smith's clear-eyed analysis of both her parents' wretched marriage and her ambivalent position within it raises this memoir above mere entertainment. Braver and sportier than her miserable older brother, less dangerously rebellious than his female twin, she is singled out by her father because of her love of poetry and readiness to sit for the paintings the Royal Academy rejects. She avoids beatings and scorn by duplicity, learns to be the person her parents want, and there's a sense that the guilty self-awareness this fosters feeds her development as a writer.

Smith eschews nostalgia: people and places are in the present tense. Elspeth wonders at them, rather than with the hindsight of Emma the adult. The Great Western Beach deserves to become an overnight classic and to find a home at holiday-cottage bedsides from St Ives to Great Yarmouth.

Patrick Gale's latest novel is 'Notes from an Exhibition' (HarperPerennial)