Gloria is currently residing in an old folks' home because she is 'losing her marbles.' Her son, Hank, and his wife keep turning up, looking increasingly concerned. One day Hank produces a familiar-looking old box and wants to talk to Gloria about its contents. Then a mysterious woman called Jill arrives, asking all sorts of awkward questions about the past and demanding answers. The trouble is there is so much that Gloria can't or won't remember. As she puts it, "I don't even remember why I don't remember, there's stuff I don't remember forgetting either." However, Gloria can remember a lot about the war years, about working at the munitions factory during the Blitz and how she and her sister, Marje, went by the philosophy that you had to live every day as if it was your last and grab love with both hands when it came along. She remembers falling in love with a GI called Ron and the sexual awakenings that came with it. Although the war years were a time when people lived for the moment, Gloria has learned that sometimes you end up having to face the consequences of that moment many years later. As she tells us - "my war, it was a tiny little war compared to some. But mine stayed with me, and the things it made me do, they stayed with me too, but hidden."
In this novel there are two stories running alongside each other. We have Gloria's 1940s story and also her modern story, residing in the old folks' home, trying to remember who all the different visitors are who keep disturbing her peace, seducing a horny old resident called Ed, being questioned by a specialist, having conversations with her friend Doris (who happens to be dead) and being plagued by visions of a little girl with a string of beads, who sits on the end of her bed and drips blood and pond weed. The two stories overlap and as the book reaches its conclusion we see past, present and future dramatically merging into one.
This is a quirky novel which appealed to me on many levels. The edgy, wartime romance, Gloria's larger than life persona, and the surreal writing style totally drew me in. I love books with strong-minded, bolshy elderly characters which blow away all the stereotypes of how people should think and behave when they reach the twilight years of their lives. The disjointed style, with the narrative flicking back and forth between the war years and the present day captures Gloria's muddled, rambling mind perfectly. I found Gloria a wonderful character. She is brash and vulgar with a penchant for politically incorrect jokes and she has a complete lack of tact. She reminded me a bit of how my gran was in her later years when senility started to set in. But there is far more to Gloria than just a confused, embarrassing old woman who is losing her marbles. Gloria is also someone who has known the agony of love and who has carried a guilty secret around with her for fifty years. Her story is funny but tragic at the same time.
I adored Gloria's robust spirit. Often she had me laughing out loud. She is somewhat deluded. In her head she is still the same 'swell kid' she was in her younger years, when she could drive her blue eyed airman crazy with her sexual prowess. When she first arrives at the old folks' home she asks, "why's everyone so blinking old in here?" These days Gloria has to make do with the amorous attentions of Ed, who is nearly 90. In one of the weirdest love scenes I have ever read, she describes their dentures together in a jar by the bed - "they sat there in the Steradent like two pink crabs that's huddled together and has fallen in underwater love." Another great moment is when Gloria's well-meaning daughter in law brings her some semi-precious healing stones to 're-energise' her and Gloria throws them at the window, smashing it, and yells - "do I look like I need bloody sodding stuffing blinking re-energising?"
I like the way the author has managed to combine dreamlike elements with gritty realism. She recreates the atmosphere of the Home Front perfectly and the black humour somehow makes the events of the novel more poignant. I find this a fascinating period of history and I was impressed by the attention to detail. I could almost feel the excitement of Gloria and Marje as they got ready for a night out, painting each other's legs with old tea and splashing fake, black market Chanel behind their ears before a night of jitterbugging. The text is full of sensory imagery, which evokes so much about the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of war - the blackout, the sulphur smells of the munitions factory, the sweet taste of canned peaches in syrup (a present from the Yanks), the sound of doodlebugs, the texture of the National Loaf, the itching of nits breeding under the turbans worn by the munitions workers, the kiss of an airman, which tastes of "rum and ciggies." I thought it was beautifully written. I loved the way the physical wreckage and maiming of war provides a metaphor for emotional damage. As Gloria puts it - "some things isn't wrecked the same way as houses."
For all its dark humour, the novel deals sensitively with the subject of memory loss, asking us to ponder who/what we are without our memories and exploring the way we repress painful things in order to survive. It made me ponder the question, who owns our memories? Are our memories the one thing that we have that are our own, to do with as we please, or do we have a duty sometimes to open up to others who may be affected by those memories? Throughout the novel I found myself wondering how much Gloria had genuinely forgotten, how much she had chosen to forget and how much she had invented. The book certainly made me think about the capacity of the human mind to create and sustain alternative realities, always a subject that interests me.
I would recommend this book without hesitation. I completed it in less than a day and I am not usually a fast reader. It made me experience a whole range of emotions and was one of those books that I thought about for a long time after I had finished reading it. Only rarely do I find myself drawn back to a book and wanting to read it again, but I'm sure I will be re-reading this one several times again during my life, which is the main reason why I have given it a 5 star rating. It provided a fascinating insight into women's experience of war and what the women were really doing whilst the men were out there "having a crack at Jerry" and the brutal reality behind the romantic myths of wartime romance that we have been fed by so many movies. Although some of the things recounted by Gloria are upsetting and shocking, I do think it is a hopeful novel as it is about a woman finally at the age of 79 unburdening herself and looking for closure. Gloria's foul-mouthed outbursts and crude jokes might put some people off, as may the graphic sexual references, so perhaps it is not a book for the narrow minded, but certainly, in my view, it is an unusual and quite haunting read. This book can be bought new from sellers at Amazon.co.uk for as little as £0.01 plus £2.80 delivery.