Tuesday, 10 February 2015

'Love And Fallout' by Kathryn Simmonds

*This review contains spoilers*

I know we’re only part-way through February but Love And Fallout by Kathryn Simmonds is easily the most enjoyable book I’ve read this year. It’s not often you get to read a novel about a relatively unexplored area of contemporary feminism that is not only fascinating, vivid and illuminating, but which also spares next to no time pandering to the bores of populist theory that such a novel also needs a love story, a romantic twist and a man at its core.

Which is why I struggled with the packaging. I know, I know - never judge a book by its cover. And with Love And Fallout the point has never been more proven.

The title, for starters, is misleading. This is not a novel about love and barely a novel about (nuclear) fallout. It is a novel about an area of feminist history that is rarely broached in fiction (the women’s peace camps at Greenham Common), which has been meticulously and intricately researched by Kathryn Simmonds. It is a novel about female friendship, about the search for self-identity, and the desire to give meaning to one’s life. It is, blessedly, not a novel about love.

The cover (a pretty illo of a waif-like clothed woman reclining in a bath, reading a book) is very misleading. At first glance, the cover, font and title identify this book to the casual browser as (yuck) chick-lit, which is to do a phenomenal miss-service to the author. Kathryn Simmonds has clearly spent months, if not years, delving into the world of the Greenham Common peace camps - her reconstruction here is so convincing that I was truly surprised to learn that Kathryn herself had not spent any time living at the camp. So to package the book as conventional chick-lit is a shame and will deter many readers who would surely love the content.

Lastly, the blurb on the back cover is misdirected. It plays heavily on the instigating act of our shero Tessa being set up in the present day for a TV makeover by her well-meaning friend and husband. Although how these two people could so woefully misjudge someone they’ve known for so long is implausible. This TV appearance, the blurb says, leads a former campmate from Greenham to get in touch with Tessa and kickstart the memories that unfold in the novel. Yet that in itself is not quite accurate. Because Angela, the former campmate, does not get in touch until close to the end of the book, so is therefore not the instigator for resurfaced memories, and her reappearance seems to have little effect on Tessa other than to ease a burden of guilt.

Easily the most absorbing area of Love And Fallout is the time at Greenham: the friendships forged, the life created, the return to basics, and the quest to redefine what it means to be a woman in the 20th Century. The echoes to how Greenham has impacted on modern day Tessa could have been more relevant if it hadn’t been repeated many times near the start of the book that it was something she hadn’t thought about for years. Yet as the revelations appear, it is clear her time there had such an impression on her that it caused her to rethink her previous life (bored secretary, lovelorn girlfriend) and become an ardent campaigner and activist for life.

I struggled with the lack of depth given to key characters. Tessa herself seems like a drip - it took guts to pack in her cosy suburban life and move to the cold mud of Greenham, yet no other evidence of these guts is displayed in a character who seems to repeatedly lack backbone or strength of character (why doesn’t she leave her boring, cheating, selfish husband who misunderstands her? Why does she just forgive Maggie for secretly dating Tessa’s teenage boyfriend who left her heartbroken?). Tessa is a doormat!

And of the many characters we meet at Greenham, there are equally as many opportunities to explore female types who usually never make it into literature… yet time and again these opportunities pass without expansion. Particularly with regards to Rori - who is considered important enough to be the character depicted on the cover and the instigator for most of the novel. Rori is a fascinating character but when she dies unexpectedly, what shocks me is the almost non-existent amount of grief displayed and the scant amount of time spent to exploring this in the book. It doesn’t make sense given how pivotal she was!

But despite all this, I return to my original claim that Love And Fallout is the most enjoyable book I’ve read this year. Because despite the frustrating packaging, misleading blurb and lack of depth to most characters… it is refreshing to read a novel that explores a relatively recent yet untouched area of women’s history, and that doesn’t resort to pitching women against each other in a fight over a man. Sure, there are a lot of shortcomings in this book, but it is ultimately a page-turning read that I sped through in almost one day and I heartily recommend it.

More than anything, Love And Fallout reminds us not to judge a book by its cover. Because this is a novel that has much greater depth and value than its failed packaging implies.

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