How things look on the outside of us depends on how things are on the inside of us. – Park Cousins
Who of us hasn’t wondered if the people we correspond with online are who they say they are? Often we don’t even have photographs or real names; in fact I have a number of people I correspond with who don’t use their real names and don’t display photos. Some are honest about their reasons and I can respect them but we’ve all heard stories about women pretending to be men and men pretending to be girls. One has to wonder if the Internet existed in 1935 would there be such doubt. Things were different then. Honour was important. It’s not a word I hear bandied about so much these days.
In 1935 there was no such thing as e-mail, tweeting, texting, chatting (except over a garden fence) and blogging. But we did have pen pals. I even had a crack at it when I was young. Can’t remember who now but it petered out quite quickly. In Trilby Kent’s new novel, Smoke Portrait, we are presented with both sides of a correspondence that takes place over several months in 1935 and 1936 plus two narratives that explain what else is going on in the lives of the correspondents.
Glynis Phayre, who prefers to be known as ‘Glen’, is a young Englishwoman not long out of university. She regards herself as a modern woman, a free thinker with a mind to do things her way. Her parents are stereotypes, not caricatures as such but with a touch of English eccentricity: Tom Conti and Patricia Hodge would be perfectly cast if anyone ever gets round to filming the book. She has a brother, Tully, something of a disappointment to the family, and a sister, Merle, who we don’t get to find out too much about other than she married and her mother approves of her being married and wishes Glen would follow her sterling example. Glen no longer lives at home – she has a flat in London where she lives off “toast and things” – but her family have a house in Wiltshire which she visits when we first get to meet her to find her father stripping the hand-painted silk wallpaper, which her grandmother had brought back from China, off the dining-room walls. “It’s all part of the redistribution process, my love,” he tells her, “I’ve had a good offer for this paper from a fellow in town.” The study has fared no better: “It was as if a fault line had split the study in two. Almost every precious floorboard had been torn up… ‘They’re worth a lot of money, you know,”” her dad tells her. As a metaphor it’s a simple and effective one: things are changing and soon nothing will be the same again.
Glen has aspirations. She thinks she might have a future as a writer. But what to write about? Then an advert in the classified section of the newspaper catches her eye:
Be a Ray of Hope
Christian Women’s Union seeks correspondents for pilot letter-writing scheme to improve the language skills of inmates in medium- to high-security prisons across Europe. Anonymity guaranteed. Details of participating offenders available upon request. Box 7339
Okay, that was Chapter 2, written, just for the record, in the third person. Let’s jump back to Chapter 1 in which we get a first-person narrative the author being a thirteen-year-old Belgian boy called Marten Kuypers. Things are not going well for the Kuypers as a family. The eldest of their two sons, Krelis, is dead following an accident at the fulling mill where he had worked for the past six months. His father is distraught and retires “to the gatehouse with a bottle of Westmalle [beer] and the family Bible,” telling Marten to go home where his mother is being comforted by an aunt and a neighbour. Marten heads for his bedroom. Strangely he is not as upset as the others. Perhaps this is because his brother’s body has not been found having apparently been washed downriver.
Eventually hunger brings him out of his room and his father gives him some money to go to De Kraan, a local tavern, for some bread and cheese. On his way out he checks for mail and there he finds a letter, “smooth, flat and cool” addressed as follows:
Pieter van Houten
Of course you know what’s happened: Glen has addressed her letter to Mechelen instead of Machelen. Marten now has a problem, what to do with the letter, pass it onto the intended recipient or… well, he’s a thirteen-year-old boy and he decides to reply to this ‘GP’, as Glen signs herself, and play the part of the convicted man.
Shortly after they begin corresponding Glen moves to stay with her Aunt Annabel who she sees as a kindred spirit. “You’re being just like Aunt Annabel … had always been the last word in chastisement when” Glen was young. “Annabel had declared her atheism at the age of seventeen before eloping to Ceylon with a man described as ‘totally unsuitable’ by her older sister,” Sylvia, Glen’s mum. Sylvia is all for writing to her sister to instruct her to come home but Glen suggests it might be a better idea if she moves out to help her. It appears that Annabel’s husband, Ray, has recently provided incontestable proof of his total unsuitability and abandoned his wife and their ten-year-old daughter Althea, to join the Planters Rifle Corps but rather than pack up her things and return to England with her tail between her legs Annabel has determined to keep on running their tea plantation on her own, supported only by a local man, Micah, who serves as her gardener cum porter cum driver come security chief, and his wife. On top of everything it turns out that Annabel has also adopted a half-caste boy, Hollar.
Mummy had taken some convincing, although a tactical suggestion that the colonies might be just the place for introductions to the right sort – military types with staff appointments, at the very least – had done the trick soon enough. Her mother had never fully approved of Harry, [Glen’s current beau], anyway; she thought him idle, which he was, and too easy with money.
Glen’s “poor, venerable” brother, Tully, who the family are trying to pressure into applying to join the Civil Service, isn’t so convinced his sister’s plan is a sound one:
“Running away isn’t the answer, sis.” There was no smile, no hint of irony.
“But it wouldn’t be running away. I’m looking for somewhere to go. Throwing myself onto the world, rather than waiting for it to come to me. There’s a difference.”
He’s an insightful character and this is not the only profound thing he has to say to his sister. Earlier in the same conversation he says, talking about the English way of life, “The things we have to believe in to survive, eh, sis?” It’s a passing remark and one you could easily skim over especially as it comes at the start of the book where you’re still trying to work out who’s who and who’s important, but it really encapsulates everything that’s to follow whether we’re talking about politics, religion, nationality, race (not the same as nationality) or love.
Meanwhile back in Belgium Marten is busy creating a believable enough political prisoner persona but although he shrouds what he tells Glen as best he can what really works in his favour is Glen’s willingness to believe he is who he says he is; she never questions it for a minute and why should she? The two of them end up doing what we all do: they “made each other up” – and, yes, that is a direct quote from the book but taken out of context. The fact is that apart from inventing themselves on paper both Glen and Marten are in the process of inventing themselves for real.
This book could have been set at any time in history really but 1935 was chosen for a reason. At that time the world was in unrest. Europe was still recovering from the First World War and was in a state of flux that would culminate in the Second World War; the Spanish Civil War was almost upon them as it was. Likewise with Ceylon, which although not a part of the British Raj had still been under British rule since 1815; independence was now looming.
One of the key themes to this book is the fact that reality is something made up. The race issues that affected the Ceylonese, being considered as inferior to the whites; the caste system within Ceylon’s own society and the propaganda that was spread concerning the Jews in Europe are all artificial constructs: this is not the way people should act towards each other. Of the book’s two protagonists Glen can see this more clearly and acts accordingly spending time with her aunt’s native servants, even eating with them, and fraternising with other locals in particular the schoolteacher, Galan. Marten, however, is more easily swayed and gets caught up in an organisation called the VNV, the Vlaams Nationaal Verbond, the Flemish National Union.
The Extreme Right in Belgium before the outbreak of WW II
The economic crisis, inflation and strikes fuelled the spread of the extreme right movements in Belgium. The movements formed themselves into political parties and took part in the electoral campaigns.
The Vlaams Nationaal Verbond (VNV) (Flemish National Alliance) was constituted in 1933 and was a radicalisation of the Frontpartij (Front Party). The language question and the demands for Flemish independence formed the basis of their manifesto. The Catholics were also represented in this party, however the clergy, who were monarchists, found it difficult to accept the anti-Belgium attitude of the VNV.
The leader of the VNV, Staf De Clercq (d. 1942), gained the electoral support of the middle class and the agricultural community, groups, in fact, who had constantly suffered during the crisis. From the election results it can be seen that the VNV experienced constant growth during the 1930’s. – The Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance
In the book this comes across as what I imagine the Hitler Youth were like. By December 1936, HJ (Hitler-Jugend) membership stood at just over five million. That same month, HJ membership became mandatory for Aryans, under the Gesetz über die Hitlerjugend law. Although in 1935, as far as I can tell, the VNV was not directly affiliated in any way with the Nazi Party, its leader was most definitively a role model and one of the boys in Marten’s troop even changes his hairstyle to match Hitler’s. When he joins this group Marten starts to receive indoctrination which he laps up. He writes to Glen:
We must all make choices now. There are people here who are helping me to do what is right. Arend is the leader. I think he sees promise in me, like you do. Arend says that the war has already started. Not with guns and tanks and airplanes – not yet. But a line has been drawn in the sand.
Glen’s preoccupations are less to do with politics – at least on the surface – as they are to do with romance. She develops strong feelings for the teacher, Ganan, who she also sees (or make believes she sees) as another kindred spirit, a modern man who wouldn’t let a little thing like the colour of his skin get in the way of their blossoming relationship. An educated man he may well be but he is far more in touch with his roots that Glen at first realises. This comes clear in this interchange about halfway through the book where they end up discussing Hollar’s mixed parentage:
“[Captain Royce] says that Hollar’s mother was a Hindu…”
“There you have it,” said Ganan decisively. “To a Hindu, there is no more exclusive stream of blood – and Hollar’s blood is polluted. He can never be one of them.”
“But surely he would prefer to have the advantages of an English boy?”
Ganan looked at her with wounded eyes. “That is neither here nor there. Hindus are as particular about their blood as the Jews. It is this pride that will be their undoing.”
“You sound as if you’ve been listening to too much twaddle from Mr Hitler…”
Her companion shrugged. “Hitler is a smart man, no? And strong: he has led a crippled nation to greatness. He wouldn’t be fooled by Ghandi’s sentimental trickery as the British are. We should be lucky to have such leaders here.”
This conversation reminded me of a lesson Arend, the VWV troop leader gives about racial purity:
“If a horse mates with a donkey, what will the result be?” he asked us one day.
“A mule,”answered Filip.
I put my hand up. “Mules can’t reproduce,” I said, not to be outdone.
Arend smiled. “That’s right, Kuypers. And do you know why?” I shook my head. “Because mules are biological errors.” He turned to the others. “Now if I were to tell you that the Jews are like mules, only they continue to breed – do you suppose this is a good thing or a bad thing?”
“A bad thing,” we all said at once.
“And what should be done?”
“We should baptise them,” I suggested. “Like the missionaries do in Africa.”
“Let me ask you this, Kuypers: can a goat become a horse?” I shook my head, worried that perhaps he was making fun of me.
“A Jew will always be a Jew,” said Arend.
It’s striking to compare the Ceylonese, the Belgian and the English views on what’s right and proper: none are right; all are based on false logic, “[t]he things we have to believe in to survive.” I asked Trilby about that line by the way:
It's so interesting that you picked up on that line from Tully, as I think I added it in a later draft. By that point, the layers of deception and mutually-agreed lies (not to mention questions of belief and faith) that make up both Glen's and Marten's stories had probably wormed their way into my thought process to such an extent that is seemed an entirely natural observation to slip in.
I do like the fact that such a key sentence is uttered by a relatively minor character, too – I really didn't want Glen and Marten to simply act as mouthpieces, and one of the things I like about the book is the fact that it's off-stage characters (such as Krelis and Tully) who cast the longest shadows...
I discovered something interesting. Trilby Kent’s last book, a children’s novel Medina Hill is also set in 1935. In an interview she’s asked why that year:
I find the interwar years absolutely fascinating. There’s a delicious dichotomy at work: people were still coming to terms with the horrific losses of the Great War by the time the Depression hit, and yet there was also an incredible outburst of creative expression, a weird exuberance that accompanied groundbreaking social change. By 1935, you also have the dawning realization that another global conflict might be just around the corner, so there’s a real tension in the air. The long, hot summer before the storm has been a popular motif for many writers over the years, because it’s so ripe with creative potential. It’s a great time in which to set a coming of age story. – Belle Wong, ‘An Interview with Author Trilby Kent on Her Writing Process’, McBookish.com, 1st November 2009
Even though Glen is in her twenties this is nevertheless most definitely still a coming of age novel. She’s only out of fulltime education six months when she decides to go to Ceylon. She thinks of herself as a modern woman but really that’s only what she aspires to be. In many ways what happens to her over these months underlines just how much growing up she has to do. Marten on the other hand has a much harder time than she does and it’s interesting looking at their letters how he often plays the grownup better than Glen does.
The blurb on the back of the ARC says, in big, bold print:
A TRAGIC TALE OF LOVE,
LOSS AND APPEARANCES
and, yes, it is but the ‘loves’ and the ‘losses’ don’t really end up being what you might expect them to be at first. Sure we have romantic love and the loss of a family member but things aren’t always as they appear. Of course you know that Glen is going to learn that she’s been confiding in a schoolboy but right from the start I wondered how this was going to be handled. It could have been done differently but the solution to the problem was believable. What was especially nice was the additional of a coda set in Antwerp in 1960 and, again, things could have turned out differently there but I had no problem with how Trilby chose to play her cards. As for whether this was a tragedy, well there were things in the book that made me sad but I didn’t feel like Horatio at the end of Hamlet or anything. I’m told this tagline might change in the final copy.
I read the book over two days, two quite long days I have to admit – the book’s 310 pages and I am not a quick reader – but as we got into the final furlong I was keen to see how things were resolved. Intelligently, I would say. If I was pushed I’d probably suggest Carey Mulligan for the role of Glen (not that anyone is asking me), Helena Bonham Carter would be perfect for Aunt Annabel but I would struggle as to who might play Ganan, probably Sendhil Ramamurthy (‘Suresh’ from Heroes). I find it interesting that I can so easily picture actors and actresses taking parts from Glen’s side of the story because of the two stories I think I found Marten’s the more compelling and I have to wonder if that was because his side of the story is written in the first person. I have no idea who I could imagine playing any of the Belgian roles but if John Hurt is available there are a number of cameos he would be perfect for. Now I’m rambling.
In their e-mail to me asking me if I’d like to have a look at the book, Alma Books said “this is going to be Alma’s submission for all major prizes” and I have to say I don’t think it’s a bad choice at all, not a bad choice at all. I think it’s got a good shot.
As an undergraduate at Oxford University (History BA), she chose Special and Further Subjects in the Indian Nationalist Movement and The Middle East in the Age of Justinian. After graduating in 2004, she moved on to the London School of Economics, where she completed an MSc in Social Anthropology. She is currently working on her PhD.
She has worked as a rare books specialist at a leading auction house and as a freelance journalist contributing investigative, arts and feature writing to the British and Canadian national press and to literary and news publications in America and Europe. In 2010 she was shortlisted for the Guardian's International Development Journalism Competition. Her short fiction has appeared in African American Review and Mslexia, among others.