It's several years since I have read Gillian Slovo's novel Ice Road but I was quite relieved to see that it came under the auspices of 2005, a diligent and feverish year of book journaling that culminated in the abandonment of the hand-written in favour of dovegreyreader scribbles early in 2006, so there was a good chance I had some thoughts recorded and I did, except you'll have to bear in mind these were for my sole amusement...
'I often resist reading books on this subject - once the Leningrad siege victims are boiling up shoe leather to eat I'm feeling too wretched to carry on reading. I don't think we quite reached this level of cuisine in Gillian Slovo's book but the starving were eyeing up the flesh on each other all the same. That said I found this to be a compelling read.
Gillian Slovo has captured the slightly detached narrative style that you associate with the time and the place almost as if you are reading a translation, but you are not...'
My thinking descended into garble and I can't bear to reveal any more, but I do remember the book for that intense involvement that means you disappear in and forget the time of day. I still have the copy so it was obviously a keeper and I still gaze at that cover and love it for the intensity of the woman's pose.
When I knew there was a chance I would be meeting and chatting with Gillian Slovo (who I'm hoping isn't reading this because she'll probably be worried) at Port Eliot Festival I dashed to the shelves to see what else I had by her and drew a complete blank, so have had to go on a begging and shopping spree.
Black Orchids arrived from Virago along with a memoir Every Secret Thing together with a pile of other books from secondhand sellers various, many now out of print, in those distinctive Women's Press editions with the ironing logo. I knew a little about Gillian Slovo's background as the daughter of anti-apartheid activists Joe Slovo and Ruth First but had little idea that she had also been a crime writer with books such as Death Comes Staccato and Death by Analysis.
So I made a start with Black Orchids and was immediately and thankfully transported to the lush green warmth of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as it was in 1946, in contrast to the frozen wastes of Ice Road. The Tinker always cites Ceylon, and in particular Trincomalee, as one of his most memorable and beautiful ports of call whilst on board ship during the war. A country rich in both natural beauty and natural mineral deposits and Gillian Slovo explores these assets to the full and to the point where even I fancied the idea of getting soaking wet in a monsoon (my wish may yet be granted at Port Eliot) or watching the sunrise from Adam's Peak. Clearly sense of place is one of Gillian Slovo's fortes, but so is plot.
Down at heel Evelyn and her mother and sister are having to leave Ceylon and return to England after the death of her father has left the family impoverished and unsupported. This is womens' lives predicated on marriage in order to be 'looked after' and for the provision of financial security, so when Evelyn turns down a proposal from safe, staid, starchy Tommy in favour of daring charmer Emil, the son of a wealthy Sinhalese rubber baron (that doesn't sound right but you know what I mean) it's clear her life may be about to follow a very interesting path.
The novel is set over a succession of years from 1946, to 1950, through to 1957, 1963 and ending in 1972 thus embracing the era of seismic shift in attitudes towards mixed marriages. By moving Emil and Evelyn to England Gillian Slovo again maximises her plot potential as she explores discrimination in all its guises, and reader, prepare to squirm with embarrassment at the way things were. I remember the shame I felt when I read Andrea Levy's Small Island, well Gillian Slovo has captured that very same atmosphere. All the money in the world doesn't buy poor Emil assimilation and acceptance, and by association Evelyn is also shunned in her own country. Everyone of course very prepared to take Emils money whilst ridiculing him behind his back and there are some excruciating moments...one in particular will remind you how it may have felt (if this happened to you) to be the last one left when the teacher's pets, the sporty ones were choosing teams. Whoever invented that selection method deserves to be put in goal in hockey for evermore. No one ever wanted me in their netball team, too short when I was twelve, didn't know left from right, rubbish at shooting, always getting whistled up for stepping...the stuff of nightmares so I felt Emil's pain.
Two children are born and whilst sister Vanessa remains rather shadowy it is Milton, the oldest son who is the focus of the hardships that a mixed marriage would have bestowed on children in the 1950s, and it is heart-wrenching so prepare to squirm all over again.
Then prepare to be calmly turning the pages when you will suddenly get a great big huge enormous SHOCK.
I don't know about you but it's rare for an author to pull a gasp moment on me. Lionel Shriver's managed it, so has David Vann, but I often see them telegraphed pages ahead, however I didn't see this one coming at all. So shocked was I that I closed the book and considered the ramifications as if this was real life. How would this impact, were would Gillian Slovo take this one...I couldn't begin to imagine but I also couldn't wait to find out.
I wasn't disappointed.