Shortly before filming Our Man in Havana Alec Guinness was invited to stay at Noël Coward’s Jamaican home, Firefly, in order to get to know his co-star better.
“Naturally he chose the dates,” wrote Guinness in his memoirs, “so I found it a little odd to come across a reference to us in his published diaries (a book I suggested to my favourite bookshop would be more suitable on the fiction tables than the non-fiction) saying, just before our arrival, that he hoped we wouldn’t stay too long.”
In Firefly, Janette Jenkins has taken Coward’s contrary nature and acid tongue as the two prongs of a tuning fork from which to riff a beautiful novel. This is an elegiac portrait of the man in his gloaming, tax-exile life under the palm fronds. The book follows Coward over several days in the early 1970s as he struggles with the encroaching indignities of old age, the oppressive sun, and his bittersweet memories of past glories. Light relief comes in the form of his manservant, Patrice, a snake-hipped Jamaican optimist who provides kindness, shrugs off his boss’s hissy fits and dreams of becoming a silver service waiter at The Ritz.
Coward dismisses the plan, warning of a future spent in a Brixton bedsit. However Patrice’s positive vibe and innocent ambition wins out. As the thermometer pops, Coward’s thoughts dart back and forth like the swifts over his pool – from his own start in the West End to the fate of long-ago loves. Gielgud, Guinness, Redgrave and Dietrich all get walk-on parts in his jumbled daydreams.
The shimmering heatwave and its soporific effects are perfectly developed. “At Firefly the gardens are steaming. The air is redolent, like a stroll around a hothouse at Kew. Noël lies outside, stretched in his shorts with the sun in jagged lines across his squashy marbled thighs.” But the book’s success really lies in the refined ventriloquism employed in detailing such a famous protagonist. There are glints of Coward’s varied personas: the clipped-vowel actor; the barbed wordsmith; the musical jester; the generous friend; the incorrigible flirt. The voice always rings true. When Patrice offers to type his own Ritz reference, Coward quips: “There’s nothing like a man tapping his Corona.”
This moving novel pays tribute to a great talent as the curtain comes down, in prose that lingers like the echo of a good bay-side martini.
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