Reviewed by Ali Hope
The Fairley family trilogy by Mary Hocking has remained among her most popular novels. They were among a small number of Hockings published by Virago in the 1980s and later re-issued by Abacus in the 1990s – and are now back in print from Bello.
Good Daughters is the first book in Mary Hocking’s Fairley family trilogy. The novel opens in 1933; the world is on the brink of great change, and so is the Fairley family. Sisters Louise, Alice and Claire live in a traditional family home in a suburban street with their parents. Stanley Fairley is the headmaster of a boys’ school and a Methodist lay preacher. Although a loving father Stanley is strict with his daughters, and he finds so much in the changing world around him to disapprove of. Louise wants to be an actress, and her requests to take acting parts in a dramatic society production are met with great suspicion. Alice invents stories, climbs trees and over the course of three years starts growing up and making sense of the world around her. The youngest sister is Claire a dreamer, who finds it hard to keep her sisters’ secrets.
It was apparent that the head of the house was present. Although he lacked the stature for natural authority, being a little short of medium height, he nevertheless, on entering a room, contrived the impression of a substantial force; an effect achieved mainly by a certain fierceness of expression and the thrusting of his stocky body against the air as though he was forever pushing an unseen opponent before him. Forcefulness alone would probably not have been sufficient to sustain dominance over a long period of time, but he was fortunate in having his wife’s support. She had suffered in her own childhood from the lack of a man at the head of the table and was not minded to go through her marriage as her mother had hers. She therefore reinforced her husband’s position while not always accepting his judgement.
Next door to the Fairley family live the Vaseyelin family, and the Fairley sisters are drawn into the lives of Jacov and Katia and their faded mother, their father who doesn’t live with his family but plays the violin outside a London station. It is at the Vaseyelin house that they meet Guy Immingham. Katia goes to school with Alice, and they are good friends, but Alice’s other friend Daphne Drummond doesn’t like Katia. Both Daphne and Katia’s families differ from the Fairley’s and Alice’s involvement with them changes her, influencing her understanding of the world. Daphne’s father is a deeply unpleasant man. Alice witnesses him with another woman, and his right wing politics have affected the way Daphne thinks too. Louise is friends with both Jacov and Guy, both of whom are involved with the drama she loves so much, Jacov in helping to produce the play she is hoping to take part in, and Guy as a fellow actor. Guy’s mother is a snooty woman who lives her life through her golden boy, and strongly disapproves of Louise considering her determined to ‘get’ her son. Claire is able only to fully commit herself to one friend at a time, and we see her changing childish allegiances and the way her friend of the moment directs her behaviour at home. Poor Claire suffers a bit from being the youngest so often the last to know what is going on, required to keep quiet about things she is dying to talk about, and necessarily reduced to frequent tears when she incurs her sisters’ wrath.
Mary Hocking re-creates family life at this crucial changing time in England’s history faithfully and realistically; there is a fantastic sense of time and place, and lots of good period detail. Alice spends a lot of time at cinema, mooning about the 1930s stars of the silver screen. Stanley Fairley keeps an eye on the news from Europe, and Alice expresses mild concern at Katia’s proposed trip to her grandparents in Bavaria.
The dramatic conclusion to this first book ensures that almost every reader will want to pick up book two straight away.
At the opening of this second book it is 1939, and Alice, the middle daughter, has newly joined the Wrens. She has previously suffered a breakdown following the events at the conclusion of Good Daughters, but is now excited to be going out into the world. Her elder sister, married to Guy, is now the mother to two young children, while Claire is coming to the end of her school days. The outbreak of war gives Stanley Fairley an excuse to re-tell the stories of his own service during the Great War – and turn his attention to more practical matters like the clearing of the loft, and helping out his increasingly hopeless neighbour Mrs Vaseyelin. Guy has also joined up – and is already abroad, while the sisters’ cousin, Ben initially takes his time to join up – but does so, irritated at the interruption to his career at the bar.
There was not much to laugh about during the next two days. Enormous seas built up. Even the crew was sick. Worse than this, submarines had wreaked havoc on a previous convoy and soon the ships were steaming through a sea laden with wreckage that at times it seemed they were making their way amid the ruins of a sunken city. It was only too easy to hear the cries of drowned men in the howling wind. Ben had not tasted fear until now. In an emergency, the crew would be at their posts. The men on draft were cargo.
Alice soon finds herself in Egypt, where she embarks on her first romance, and is both impressed and surprised by the sophisticated worldliness of her fellow Wrens – who indulge in casual love affairs with ease. Back in London Angus Drummond is involved with some kind of secret war work – and begins a relationship with Irene, one of Alice’s friends. Daphne Drummond – of whose family relationships Alice still has very uneasy feelings – has a brief fling with Ben before he too goes abroad, and with the absence of Alice, Daphne and Louise are thrown together. Louise is lonely; a young woman with two small children, she is not the type to throw herself into good works, and there are plenty of temptations for an attractive young woman who hasn’t seen her husband in a long time.
Appearing when least expected, Jacov Vaseyelin manages to run into Alice whilst she’s in in Egypt, part of a touring company – his appears to be a calm, philosophical attitude to the tragedies that the war has brought to his and his friends’ doors.
Picking up Welcome Strangers, a novel full of people I felt I already knew quite well was like slipping easily into a very slightly interrupted conversation.
Then she realised that girls in an office in the adjacent wing of the building were looking at her. A trickle of despair ran down her spine. Would she ever be able to adapt herself to this curious world with its mysterious concerns? She had been demobilised from the Women’s Royal Naval Service only a few months ago, and already the war years seemed like a period out of time. Life flowed around them, leaving them isolated, a strange territory unconnected with the mainland. She didn’t like the mainland very much, and she didn’t understand what was happening on it.
As the novel opens, it is 1946, the long war is over. Post war London is an often cheerless place. Alice Fairley has replaced the excitement and importance of Egypt for a job in a local government education office. Louise and Guy are still finding Guy’s return home after years abroad difficult to get used to, their children James and Catherine too used to being without him. There have been other changes to the makeup of the Fairley family – changes which Alice and Claire find especially hard. The Fairley’s old next door neighbour Jacov Vaseylin is working in the theatre, living in the flat of a friend who has gone to America, and still haunted by the disappearance of his sister in the 1930s. Daphne Drummond is now also married and moved to Norfolk, and her brother Angus is still behaving with peculiar secrecy. As Alice is drawn more towards her third cousin Ben – still deeply affected by his experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp – Angus’s secret life threatens to involve everyone in things they never dreamed they would be a part of.
By now, in this final novel of the trilogy, some of these characters have revealed facets of their personality – which at best are flawed, and make them hard to sympathise with. I always find such characters far more interesting. Mary Hocking has created characters that the reader becomes involved with, whether they are likeable or not. In the stories of these characters, Mary Hocking highlights beautifully how living in difficult and turbulent times can lead people to making strange and life changing decisions.
Set against a background of the introduction of a new education bill, the wedding of the Princess Elizabeth, the coming of the Olympics, and talk of spies on many lips – Welcome Strangers is wonderfully atmospheric a compelling read, which rounds off this lovely series brilliantly.
Mary Hocking gives her readers a faithful and realistic portrayal of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times times of fear and confusion, loneliness and unexpected deaths. Hocking doesn’t just show us the frustrations of rationing, the jolly camaraderie of shelter life. Instead we have the horror of a Japanese prisoner of war camp, the feeling of homelessness that follows a bombing, the desolation of a railway siding during the blackout – the glamour of a Wrens uniform, the strangeness of new found freedom, and the fear of secrecy, rumours of spies that came out of a long dreamt of peace. Born in 1921, Mary Hocking herself would have lived through these times as a young woman and in fact she served in the meteorology branch of Fleet Air Arm during the war.
Mary Hocking’s sense of time and place is always spot on, and in these novels she brings to life the world of ordinary suburbia during wartime, showing how it changed. Her characters are drawn affectionately but also faithfully, fully flawed, they are certainly not the cosy inhabitants of Sunday evening wartime dramas – but come to us from life.
Ali blogs at HeavenAli, where versions of these reviews originally appeared – and has helped champion Mary Hocking back into print.
Mary Hocking, Good Daughters (Bello, 2016) . 978-1509819119, 296pp., paperback.
Mary Hocking, Indifferent Heroes (Bello, 2016). 978-1509819171, 308pp., paperback.
Mary Hocking, Welcome Strangers (Bello, 2016). 978-1509819140, 336pp., paperback.
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