Friday, 13 January 2017

Book Review: The Last Days of Leda Grey

I seem to be posting an increasing number of book reviews. I'm not sure this is really in my best interests, as I only review books I've enjoyed and I concentrate on historical novels, so basically I'm encouraging you all to read the books that directly compete with mine. 😕 Perhaps that's not an ideal marketing strategy. Anyway, people seem to enjoy the reviews and I do try to write the blogs you want to read, so here is another one.

It's difficult to review a book when you've been to the launch party and met the author and enjoyed the delicious nibbles and the cake. It's not so much that you're biased, but that you come to it with expectations. You read it differently, possibly wearing a "Literary Critic" hat rather than just enjoying it for what it is. Still, I can honestly say that I did enjoy The Last Days of Leda Grey, which is probably much more of a relief to me than to the author, Essie Fox.

Ms Fox has established a reputation as a writer of 19th century fiction. I have to confess that I've never read it, although I enjoy her excellent blog on all things Victorian, the Virtual Victorian. This book, though, breaks away to the Edwardian era. The story is framed by the account of a young journalist in 1976, with most of the action being set against a background of the early cinema. I had no idea that the south coast of England was one of the places where film-making started on a commercial scale, but I found the story entirely credible. I know other people have googled and confirm that the factual background is correct, but I have simply taken Ms Fox's word for it. There is quite an extensive bibliography for those who want to check up on the history, but time is short and I'm lazy and read an awful lot of history already. The book would definitely have benefited from a historical note.

Perhaps the absence of a historical note reflects the fact that this is not a conventional historical novel. The characters behave in ways which, whilst believable in the context of the story, are distinctly modern. They are all actors, actresses and other bohemian types and their louche behaviour does not necessarily reflect societal norms at the time. In fact the story relies on the emotional sympathy between the jaded, quite possibly drug addled, music journalist who frames the narrative and Leda Grey, the one-time star of the silent screen who is, we discover, no stranger to chemical stimulation herself.

I remember the summer of 1976. The heat was so intense that at the end of the working day I would go swimming in a local river. It seemed all that kept me sane. The narrator here is suffering from that long hot summer and the almost hallucinatory impact that it seemed to have on all of us. What with that and the drugs and, possibly, some illness, he's not a very reliable narrator. He finds Leda Grey in the ruin of the house where she lived at the height of her beauty, a bona fide screen siren. Now she is old and faded, yet the beauty still shines through, sometimes with an almost supernatural intensity. Is this the fevered imagination of a young man becoming infatuated with a woman literally old enough to be his grandmother? Or is it that Leda’s bone structure and tricks of the light really mean that she can shimmer with vital beauty? Or is there something darker and more mysterious going on?

The reader naturally leans to the idea of dark and mysterious forces at work. We are repeatedly reminded that many people believe that a photograph can capture your soul. Is Leda’s soul held within those tins of film littering the old house? And does it escape back, infusing her body with diabolical beauty? There are continual mysterious sounds that might indeed be an old-style projector or the cars and motorbikes of a bygone era. There are unexplained reflections in the mirrors. Things arrive and vanish unaccountably. The spirit world may well be at work.

Essie Fox has written on Twitter about her admiration for Bram Stoker and, even if I had not seen that, I think I would recognise the influences of that master of macabre horror. For all that the setting is Edwardian/modern the style of the story is firmly based in the Victorian age. The prose has something of the feel of the 19th century too. I found it effective and easy to read, but it can seem affected. My wife struggled with the opening pages and has yet to return. She may well not be alone, which is a pity because once you get into the atmosphere of the book the language works very well.

Now the light that trickled in was a great deal fainter than before. But enough to see when Leda Grey motioned to the mantelpiece where, beside the silent static clock, I saw the tall brass candlestick she must have been alluding to when she asked, "Could you light that candle, please? I'm afraid that here in White Cliff House we have no electricity… And no more oil for any lamps.”

Stoker was obsessed with death and sex (possibly because he was dying of syphilis) and this book is dominated by the same issues (though, presumably, not for the same reason). Leda Grey, once young and beautiful, inhabits the ruin of a body in the ruin of the house where she had achieved her greatest triumphs. The young girl is trapped in the old body just as her image is trapped in the films that share the house with her. And then there is the narrator – still young, but tired and cynical; debauched like Wilde’s Dorian Gray. (And, I wonder, is the coincidence of surname here really a coincidence? If Stoker is a driving force behind this book, Oscar Wilde has certainly helped with some of the details.) The young old woman and the old young man end up in a strange relationship with definite sexual undertones. Sexuality is introduced, too, with a modern young woman whose grandparents had bit-parts in Leda Grey’s story. She arrives like some sort of sprite, living in a railway carriage, constantly travelling, but going nowhere. I found her, I admit, the least satisfactory element of the story, arriving only to vanish away until the very end when …

But no, you’ll have to read it yourself. When all is said and done, for all its asides on mortality and for all the research that has gone into the detail of early cinematography, this is at heart a ghost story. And like all the best ghost stories, the best is kept to last. And it’s too good for me to spoil.

I don’t do star ratings, but this comes with a definite ‘Recommended’ from me.


Excellent as Essie Fox's book is, other historical novels are also available. Clicking on any of the book covers to the right of the screen should take you to the Amazon Kindle page. All are also available in paperback. 

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