This novel by Lissa Evans is just about perfect: expertly written in a style reminiscent of the literary fashions of the 1940s; full of wonderful characters that begin as stereotypes and take on flesh in an extraordinary way; expertly plotted and paced, with each development and surprise perfectly timed; unsentimental yet full of feeling; painstakingly researched; and on top of all that, it tells an absolutely fascinating story.
That story is set in 1940-41 and tells of the making of a British propaganda film about an incident that allegedly took place during the Allied withdrawal from Dunkirk. Three plot lines intertwine. The first features a fading former leading man in B-grade British films of the 1930s who has not yet realized that his career has tanked; he’s a typical second-rate thespian, all vanity and superficiality and contempt for humanity at large. The second follows the career of a plain, shy, lonely seamstress who works in the wardrobe department at Madame Tussauds, the famous London wax museum, and has a tendency to attract German bombs. The third storyline centres on a young, pretty Welsh woman, the taken-for-granted mistress of a famous painter, who quits her copywriter’s job at a moribund advertising agency to go and work for the Ministry of Information as a scriptwriter on propaganda films. It is her determination to turn the Dunkirk incident into a film that tells the ‘truth’ about it – not the factual truth, which turns out to be somewhat disappointing, but an emotional truth – which results in the making of the film on which the plot of the book centres. That film, incidentally, is shot on location on a Norfolk beach and in a somewhat dingy studio in South London.
Each of these plot lines contains a love story, but the point of the story is not the progress of the love affair but the redemption or self-realization that results from it. Not all of the stories have happy endings.
Finally, the book contains two really excellent canine characters who are quite as well-rounded and memorable as the human ones. No kiddie business here; the dogs are dogs, not humans in disguise, but anyone who knows dogs well will be able to vouch for the veracity of the character-drawing.
All in all, an unqualified success. I tend to reserve my five-star ratings for world-changing or life-changing books, but this novel, while it certainly doesn’t fall into that category, probably deserves the extra star. It really is that good; my compliments to Ms. Evans.