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Alex, the optimistic heroine of Louise Tondeur's second novel, likes to dress up in men's trousers and dreams of dating Julia Adams, the actress who starred in Creature from the Black Lagoon. Fantasy becomes reality when an older woman, a customer at the bakery where Alex works, steals a kiss over the lemon surprises.
This is 1959, and the English seaside village of Eade isn't familiar with girl-on-girl romance. Sent to a home for troubled young women, the eponymous "Haven", Alex joins a group of other young transgressives: unmarried pregnant mothers, runaways and shop-lifters. Here, with God's help and classes in pot pourri and household hygiene, the sadistic supervisor, Mrs Brown, hopes to re-educate her "feeble-minded" charges in the ways of femininity. Alex spends long hours in a darkened room, contemplating the words "wife", "washing machine" and "duty". On a more sinister note, any baby born at the home is given up for immediate adoption.
Alongside the story of Alex's time at The Haven, and her intense attraction for fellow-inmate Rachel, Tondeur interweaves the secret histories of other girls who have spent time within its walls. Although the novel's several scenarios mirror Alex's - a Victorian girl commits suicide when her best friend jilts her for a man, two Edwardian women fall in love waiting for their babies to be born - it's Alex's love life that takes centre stage. The least convincing section is set in the present day, with the story of Erica, a disturbed NHS orderly who starts over at The Haven as a pastry chef.
Despite a tendency to over-egg an already potent mix, Tondeur's brand of homespun gothic and seaside camp is a memorable one. The depiction of female communal life is both tender and eccentric. The girls under Mrs Brown's authoritarian regime develop a reluctant camaraderie: wrapping slices of ham around their breasts for after-hours snacks, and experimenting with kisses and caresses. The prospect of childbirth hangs over them like a death sentence.
Passion and drama have their place in Tondeur's universe, but it's friendship that conquers all. A network of sisterly support exists, even in Eade, and ex-Havenites keep an eye out for new recruits - especially the local librarian who supplies interested girls with well-thumbed copies of Odd Girl Out and Middlemarch. By 2004, the village boasts a new Lottery-funded library, and the home has been reinvented as a cookery school. Progress, Tondeur seems to be saying, on a plate.
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