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Windows On The Moon, By Alan Brownjohn
Terrible losses and small joys
Monday 13 April 2009
Windows on the Moon is not that awful chimera, the "poetic" novel, but the latest work of fiction by someone who is also a fine poet.
It is winter 1947, and Alan Brownjohn summons up a world where no one ever felt quite warm enough, or well dressed, or well fed. The ice-dragons on the insides of windows, the hand-me-down clothes, the rationing – the misery is here. But it's also a curiously quiet world, where music in the local Empire theatre is a rare treat, and Jack Hollard, 17-year-old son of Maureen, has his studies interrupted by the neighbour's new television, which "jabbered without pity in the room below".
Jack is bothered on other fronts; by sex mainly. In his head, he separates lust from romance. He is excited by a new act at the Empire – naked tableaux of famous works of art – but at the same time in chaste and adoring love with 15-year-old Sylvia Freeman.
This is the story of two families: the Hollards and the Freemans. They belong, in the finely graded system of the day, to the "upper-working" class. Perce Hollard works in a shipping office; his wife in a café, where she sleeps with the owner. Sylvia's mother works as a cleaner at the Empire. Boys expect to go to work soon or be called up for National Service; Jack is working hard to get a scholarship to university. For girls, work is a brief interval between school and marriage.
Maureen's affair comes at a heavy price. She finds herself pregnant and has to encourage her torpid husband to make love so that she can convince him he is the father, only to suffer a horrible miscarriage. She is a wonderfully caught character, warm and sensuous, wanting a lot more from life than it seems prepared to give. There is a more sinister story woven through all this – a French language teacher, haunted by collaboration in Vichy, on the run from justice.
This is a very satisfying novel. It deals with our common humanity, its terrible losses and occasional joy.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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