Book review by Mike Sansbury, manager of The Grove Bookshop, Ilkley

Anthony Quinn's Freya which is published in hardback by Jonathan Cape at £14.99

FREYA is Anthony Quinn’s fifth novel and features characters from his 1930s theatreland mystery, Curtain Call, but it is much broader in scope and more serious in tone. The title character appeared in that earlier book as a ten-year-old girl but, as the new book opens, she is a WREN celebrating VE Day in London. The strange hysteria of that incredible day is captured in the dazed expressions of men in the streets and the nervous excitement among the women, “as if every single one of them were just getting married.” Dejected to find nobody at home at her father’s house, Freya wanders the streets and teams up with Nancy, a young girl who is to become her closest friend, and the book follows their fortunes through University, their early careers in London and their experiences of the 1960s.

We meet many interesting characters along the way; Freya’s father. Stephen, is an artist whose new partner causes friction with his daughter, while the girls’ various Oxford friends are a lively, if perhaps a little typical, bunch of aesthetes and radicals. Themes of the day are inevitably interwoven into the plot, so characters discuss the merits of Evelyn Waugh (Nathaniel Fane is a dead ringer for Anthony Blanche) and the Cambridge spies. Freya even manages to flit to Nuremburg where her father is sketching the trials as an official artist, and twenty years later she becomes embroiled in the tragic events surrounding a model overcome with the excesses of Sixties life. This might all seem a little trite, but is merely meant as a caveat, along with one more point; a recent reviewer homed in on some repetitive and humdrum phrasing, but I feel sure that these rare lapses are more the fault of the editorial team and do not reflect the linguistic skill of the author.

This novel has two main strengths, more than reason enough for reading the book. The first is the sense of period, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the war. As Freya stumbles through London on V.E. Day, Nancy fetches them ice cream cornets, “torches to light their way,” and the sense of exhaustion and confusion mingled with relief and excitement, all the while looking over one’s shoulder at the horrors of bombing and blackout, comes across remarkably well. Similarly, in an Oxford full of boisterous ex-military personnel and distant dons, Freya describes her mixed feelings thus; “it was not the war she wanted back, but the sense of shared endeavour.” When, in Nuremburg, she watches church pews being burned for warmth, it highlights the hedonism and wastefulness of Vane in an earlier scene and contrasts the two countries’ reaction to defeat and victory.

The book’s other joy is Quinn’s prose. He has clearly read widely, and the allusions to writers as familiar as Shakespeare, and as obscure as Irwin Shaw and Arthur Hugh Clough, inform his writing, give it breadth and heighten the sense of period and place. Amid the glorious description of post-war Oxford, “the smell of a butcher’s shop bloomed sour,” and later on a character suggests that the books in one’s life “seemed to her like rings in the grain of a tree, marking the years.” He has the Shakespearian gift for rounding off a scene, and this is, in the end, an absorbing and intensely satisfying book.