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New Year's day 1980 on a hilltop overlooking Sunderland and County Durham, eight young people wait for the sun to rise on new hopes and dreams, some to work, some to go on to a different future. One young man states the statistics for their group, one will die, three will marry etc, the others laugh at him but all too soon one of them will die in suspicious circumstances, but for now they make a promise to meet again, same place but Midsummer's Day in ten year's time.
Four bright young men and four bright young women, college graduates with the world ahead of them, it should have been their last New Year for a long time but after the tragic death of one, life will deal out a lot of joy but also plenty of sorrow. Who will attend the reunion in ten years time and how will the changing times have affected them?
A tumultuous decade.
Denise Robertson writes with great empathy and sure knowledge of both the area and the decade when so many things changed. Maggie Thatcher was in power and for the miners of the Northern pit town where most of the group were born, it's going to be a time of change, strikes and hunger, poverty and lost dreams. Each of the group will be affected by the era and through their eyes the reader will learn much about the eighties in Britain. It's a fascinating look at eighties life, and a poignant reminder of the fleeting quality of life.
The story unfolds with different speakers, but the main character is Jenny, a young woman who has a comfortable home life, loving parents and a kind, gentle nature. She will be the one who deals with the fall-out from her friend's problems and by the end of the book will still be seeking that elusive dream, the ideal man. She will witness the highs and lows with courage and compassion, her future in BBC radio giving her the opportunity to comment on the era, and what a crazy time it was.
For some the eighties were a boom time, but the bubble soon burst and Britain went through changes that hadn't been seen since the swinging sixties. There was the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the later war between Britain and the Falklands, which were both controversial. Near the end of the decade the troubles in Eastern Europe spill over into the nineties and a new order of freedom from the fears of the Cold War. Television changed beyond recognition, celebrities were made and unmade within a short space of time. The music was Hendrix, Motown, then Queen, the bands changed youth and youth changed the course of future generations. For anyone born in that time the book will be a fascinating study of the times. For others like myself it will bring back memories both happy and sad.
Jenny is the main character and our voice for the narrative. I took to her instantly as here was a character I could relate to. Her background is comfortable but by no means well off. She's not a prude but still a virgin and wants a career first and a family secondly. Early in the story she reveals a crush on Keir that lasts a while even when he's shown a cruel side to his nature.
Cath is Jenny's closet friend and lives in Belgate that is the mining area of the town where the houses are mostly slums. She's hoping to get away from her poor background and her mother is determined to see her daughter get on in life. She's warm-hearted and loving, but ultimately will fall for the wrong man.
Barbara is the affluent girl who is nearest to Jenny in background. Her one dream is to find the ideal job that will lead to the ideal man, someone who will have money and give her the best in life. I didn't particularly like her but she serves as a reminder that many young women still wanted to marry well and get on in the world that way.
Elaine is the poorest in terms of money and background. She left home as soon as possible because of her stepfather who took more than a passing interest in her as a woman. Her and Jed are hoping to marry as soon as one of them gets a decent job. Of the eight she's already working two menial jobs to keep herself.
Keir is also from the slum area but his parents have managed to get him a scholarship to university with his father in particular hoping he'll go into politics. Most of the girls have a crush on him but is he really such a catch?
Alan also comes from a decent but modest background, his mother married a much older man and Alan is her life. Of all the characters he's a bit of a mystery. He appears to be cold and calculating but maybe that's just a front?
Jed is a free spirit, a lively character who keeps the group together in many ways. He is the one who predicts the possible futures of the friends, but underneath the teasing daredevil nature he's a natural leader. In love with Elaine his major goal in life is making enough for them to marry.
Lastly there is Euan, who comes from a rich family. Soon into the book he leaves for Rhodesia to work on a family farm. He's closest to Jed who he admires. The rest of the group thinks him stuffy but he will prove his own worth in time.
I can't say more about the characters without revealing more of the plot. Since this is very much a character-driven story the reader needs to either love or hate the different ones or, like me, feel pity when they mess up as some are bound to do. At the heart of the book are Denise Robertson's strong skills; she's an author but also an agony aunt and stars on TV in the same capacity. Her books are about people and how their backgrounds and events shape their characters. Her writing is beautiful at times with a real sense for what makes people of all ages do the things they do. She doesn't sit in judgment but writes of real people in both ordinary and extraordinary situations.
My thoughts on the Plot.
As the story develops the characters shape the way the plot goes. For Keir and Jenny it will take them into London and a career in radio and television. Keir is determined to make a TV career far from his father's hopes of him becoming a politician. He will lie, cheat and tread on people to get where he wants to go, leaving many broken hearts and promises behind him.
Alan becomes a lawyer and fulfils his mother's hopes for him, hopes that could destroy her and blight her son's life.
For Elaine there's a future as a single parent and a life of hard work. Cath and Jenny are able to help her and some of the book's tenderest moments come from the love surrounding one young child. The group looks after their own even when tragedy strikes them.
For this is no fairy story, the period covered by the book was one of both personal and national pain. I remember all to well how my own life was hard as a single parent though I'm a bit older than the characters in the book. I felt for all the parents in the book, as their dreams for the children sometimes went awry. The miner's strike was a national disaster and the Falkland war left behind many causalities that seem to have been forgotten lately in the larger wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. We were terribly afraid of the 'Russians' the 'Red's under the bed' was a classic fear of the early era.
The story deals with many themes, including accidental death, pregnancy outside marriage, mental illness, homosexuality, poverty and broken marriages. It also covers true friendship, a hope for better times, people who give all for their children, friends who stay true even when life is at it's worst. There's hardy a topic not covered by the author and it will take a very hard person not to feel the emotions stirred by this book.
I couldn't just leave it there without saying what a gloriously indulgent read this is. Indulgent as in allowing your senses to be tugged one way then another. The characters in the book are true representations of characters most of us have come across at times. You will feel each emotion and at times you'll glimpse the kind of life that others have lived and still survived the outcome. This isn't a happy-ever-after tale of rags to riches neither does it preach to you.
It's a tale for any friend who's struggled with staying true. For parents who have to watch their children make their own mistakes and for the child in all of us who wants to shout out 'Why Me?' But more than anything it's about the spark of goodness in us all that makes us so unique and gives the human race hope for the future.
After that is obvious I loved it. A gentle but thoughtful story that can be read by all ages.
First published in 1991, this edition is published in 2010. It's rather pricey on Amazon at £6.39 but can be bought cheaply second hand.
440 pages in medium type, makes for easy on the eyes.
Thanks for reading.