In 1991, researching a history of women reporters, I wrote to veteran war correspondent Martha Gellhorn requesting an interview. She declined to co-operate with a book which had women in the title, insisting that she was a reporter, not a woman reporter.
The Spoiler, Annalena McAfee's first novel for adults, is, the author insists, not based on Martha, nor any of the other distinguished women journalists of her era. Yet her heroine, Honor Tait, (born 1917) bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman whose fearless reporting from the Spanish Civil War and the front line during the Second World War made her a legend as much as her messy private life, which included a stormy marriage to Ernest Hemingway. Honor, "the doyenne of British journalists", is even confused with Martha by young Tamara Sim (born 1970), sent to interview her on her 80th birthday and whose life coincides so tumultuously with Honor's.
When Honor Tait is asked what advice she would give a young woman journalist starting out today, she rounds on her questioner in true Gellhorn style: any advice would apply just as much to young male journalists. When pressed, Honor's advice is the same as that she has always given: "an ability to really see... to champion the weak and to shine a searchlight in the darkest corners of human experience."
Much of this book - set in the late 1990s, just before the internet changed everything - is about how and where some journalists were choosing to shine that searchlight, often in pursuit of money rather than truth and, in desperation to keep their jobs, exposing some murky corners in the private lives of fellow-reporters along the way. This is a world McAfee has clearly experienced and there are some extremely funny and sharply observed scenes. The book opens with Tait rushing around her own flat removing, she hopes, every object or photograph that could be misinterpreted by the young journalist. Sure enough, the little that remains is misinterpreted.
For the inexperienced Sim, a girl "groomed for mediocrity", is more at home writing lists of who is sleeping with whom or who is in rehab clinics in the celebrity world. She has not had time to research the clippings file before the interview with Tait but, armed with her trusty thesaurus that enables her to describe the once-famed Chthonic beauty of her subject, Sim feels confident the article will sound well-crafted. An invented story from Tait about how dancing with Bing Crosby made her feel like a column of gossamer is transformed by Sim into how it made her feel like a gossip columnist.
Yet there is a volte face (to reveal it would be a spoiler of my own) which enables McAfee to question how honourable are any of those, male or female, who describe ghastly events. Towards the end of the novel it becomes clear that both women are damaged individuals with unhinged dependents and with more in common than they would wish to admit. For both, the "transcendent euphoria of generating the biggest story of the day" is the key driver.
Finally, a word of praise for an often unsung heroine: the jacket designer. Helena Masters has created a brilliantly original and evocative image which sets just the right tone for this satiric indictment of the cliché-heavy, intrusive nature of much modern journalism, and the pain and havoc it wreaks. Read all about it!
Anne Sebba is the Author of 'Battling for News: Women Reporters from the Risorgimento to Tiananmen' (Faber Finds). Her life of Wallis Simpson will appear from Weidenfeld & Nicolson in AugustReuse content