Windows On The Moon, By Alan Brownjohn

Terrible losses and small joys
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The Independent Culture

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.