Anthony Quinn came out of nowhere for me. No, not the actor. The British film critic/novelist who apparently has four previous books. His latest, Freya, continues my happy discovery of big fat novels with traditional narrative structure, stuffed with history and compelling characters. If this is a new trend, I’m all for it. I may never read another of those what-we-used-to-call minimalist, inscrutable novels again.
And at 556 pages, Freya is a doorstopper. But well worth it. The novel spans the years right after WWII right up to the 1960s in London. Think the exuberant frenzy of V-E Day, the horror of the Nuremberg trials, the birth of mod Carnaby Street with characters based on Twiggy, John Profumo, and Lucien Freud. Even saying Twiggy’s name makes me feel old. Anybody remember Jean Shrimpton and Yardley?
The protagonist for whom the book is named is a smart, strong-willed, complicated young woman who, after serving in the WRENS during the war, finds life at Oxford a bit timid for her taste and inclinations. She embarks on a career as a journalist and we follow her through the chaos and wreckage her headstrong character (and filthy mouth … such great fun to see a woman who swears like a sailor) attract.
We also follow her relationship with a much less assertive young woman who becomes a novelist and is something of a moth to Freya’s light until she comes into her own. The book is very much about a passionate life-long friendship between two woman and depicts its twists and turns with affection.
There’s tremendous contemporary relevance here. Freya is self-confident and very ambitious, not the most revered qualities for a woman of her era. Need I say anything about women in the workplace today? Her insistence on equality often puts her at odds with her journalistic highers-up; nor does her insistence on sexual independence go over well. No one knows quite what to make of this brash, fearless woman.
I realized how PC I’ve become when I was horrified with a pregnant character in the novel (I won’t say who and ruin it for you) who smokes and drinks with reckless abandon. How utterly depraved! The booze does flow freely throughout this book, great oceans of it. And benzedrine and Tuinals … they’re not part of the plot, more like wallpaper.
I loved Freya. It’s cinematic and we know (to a degree) what’s coming at the end. But it doesn’t matter. It’s a story very well told indeed.