Thursday, June 19, 2008

Book review: The Boat Girls

Yes, I know, not Isambard's Kingdom, at least not yet. Despite some interesting snippets (Eton College unsuccessfully tried to get an injunction to stop the Great Western stopping at Slough because they feared the boys would escape; coots only feed one of their young) the style was just so boring, I couldn't take it in large doses. Maybe I will return to it in snippets. In the meantime, I have collected Minnow on the Say, but haven't dared open it yet, for fear of disappointment.

My usual practice, on visiting the library, is to randomly select half a dozen books from the paperback fiction section, and see what I've got when I get home. That way I occasionally uncover something brilliant that I would never have looked at otherwise (J.G. Farrell's Troubles comes to mind), I usually get something sufficiently mindlessly engaging for the train, and sometimes of course, tomes that are completely unreadable (no matter how good the author (sorry Kate Mosse, Hilary Mantell, Joanne Harris; even Daphne DuMaurier), I simply cannot engage with anything set during the French Revolution).

And there on the shelf in front of me (not having been to the library for a while, the first couple of visits saw me accidentally only looking in the historical fiction section. I'm not too keen on the English Civil War as a backdrop either) was The Boat Girls by Margaret Mayhew. Sure enough, the story of three eighteen year old women from different backgrounds who go off to work on the boats in the war. Women-in-WW2 is clearly Margaret Mayhew's stock in trade, judging by her other half-dozen or so titles, whose covers were reproduced inside. Women and Americans, women and Dunkirk, women in the WRNS, women in the WAAF, and women on the IW.

Well, it wasn't at all bad. I could cavil and say that the characters were somewhat superficailly drawn and not very emothioally engaging, but I've seen a lot worse, and anyway, that's probably not what Mayhew's readership is after. It was a bit of a shame that they all had to be the same age - Shy Prue, tyrannised by her suburban father, who escapes a lifetime of drudgery as a bank clerk by ultimately escaping to Winnipeg with a lost-and-then-found-again airman (oh, sorry, spoiler); Privileged Frances, tyrannised by her upper class RAF officer brother (her father having not quite been himself since the first war), who escapes a lifetime of drudgery as chatelaine of a crumbling stately home by nearly running off with a boatman before realising that it just wouldn't work and settling for an upper class RAF officer friend of her brother's instead, and Ros, the down to earth gritty one, forged in a lifetime of theatrical lodgings, who rather improbably gives up the casting couch for Frances' brother (Vere, if you please) who is so smitten with her that he throws his tyrannical morality to the winds.

Mayhew acknowledges her debt to the work of Woolfitt, Cornish and Gayford, and indeed, it's very clear throughout the book that she's drawn heavily on them not only for background detail, but also for stories, events and even characters. The trainer, 'Pip' is indistinguishable from Gayford, right down to the bicycle, and Frances is recognisably based on Woolfitt. She does it very well though; accurate, rarely heavy handed, always readable and usually clearly comprehensible. The focus is on the boats and boating life for the largest part of the book and the atmosphere and imagery are perceptible if not quite palpable. Someone who came to this as a fan of Mayhew, or of the plucky home front heroine genre more broadly, would go away with a good idea of the Idle Women's experiences - well, as good as they'd get from Woolfit and Gayford, at any rate. And a coherent, undemanding and instantly forgettable story as a bonus.

What were the publishers thinking of when they approved the cover illustration though? All the books in the series feature a photo of a woman (looking fiery, pensive or determined as appropriate) in uniform or forties dress and hairdo, superimposed on a suitable background (airfield, battle at sea etc). This one has a rather modern looking woman, albeit in obligatory too-big shirt, corduroy breeches (both very clean) and big belt, with a hairdo like nothing I've ever seen (perhaps it was supposed to look unkempt and lousy?), foregrounded against a lock. With, clearly visible in the background, a modern leisure narrowboat, and some kind of Dutch barge. It seems a shame, when the author has clearly gone to some lengths to do her research and get the detail pretty much spot-on, that the publishers couldn't at least dig out a picture of some old boats, or even better an old picture. Hap'orth of tar, anyone?

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