Firstly – sorry I’ve been a bit behind with adding links to the 1947 Club post, but do keep them coming! It’s great to see so many different books being covered – and you have until Sunday to finish reading and reviewing.
This one might be my last for the week, though, and it’s the one I’ve been reading most of the week: Black Bethlehem by Lettic Cooper, probably best known to most of us (if at all) for the novel The New House, which was both a Persephone title and a Virago Modern Classic. That’s certainly why I bought it whenever I did buy it, which I think might have been almost a decade ago. It’s nice that I’ve been able to do all my 1947 reading from books I’ve had waiting on my shelves for years – though (and sorry to write what will probably be my final review for this club as a bit of a downer) I didn’t really like this one all that much…
The book is quite slim, but the font is tiny and I think it’s actually probably quite a long novel… or, indeed, ‘three long short stories’, as I discovered it was only towards the end of reading (from this not-super-positive contemporary review). Before that, I’d just got rather confused, trying to link the sections together – the only link, so far as I can tell, is the appearance of John Everyman in each part, and that is evidently a not-particularly-coded way of introducing an everyman throughout.
There is a brief Prologue in an air raid shelter in 1944 that wasn’t particularly promising – Cooper very much puts theoretical arguments in different characters’ mouths, without much attempt at verisimilitude. Thankfully it’s pretty brief, and then we’re into Part 1. This concerns Alan Marriott in the final months of the war, invalided out of fighting, and giving an account of his wartime experience as part of a radio broadcast. We then see his uncertainties about his future, how he’s trying to keep his family happy while still trying to understand his role in this bizarre new world – and he’s in the midst of something of a love triangle at the same time.
Part 1 was my favourite section. It’s quite odd to have a female writer describe the life of a soldier – particularly as so many writers were presumably available in 1947 who’d had firsthand experience; it’s in the third person, but very much trying to put across Alan’s views and memories. It’s that slight disjointedness that doesn’t quite ring true. Cooper is describing how she imagines soldiers lived and thought and reacted to the war – and she doesn’t quite hit authentic notes. I am a passionate believer that anybody should be allowed to write about pretty much anything, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be completely successful. BUT this is still the best part of Black Bethlehem – engrossing and detailed.
Part 2 was my least favourite… We hop back to 1941, and a first person narrator whom we eventually learn is called Lucy. I spent most of this centre chunk of the book trying to work out who she was and how she related to anybody else in the first section, and perhaps I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d known from the outset that there were no connections… Lucy’s work in an office was quite interesting, but mostly this part (in diary format) felt a bit tedious, and I didn’t care enough about the characters to get overly bothered when she found herself in a love triangle. Though there was the odd moment that will stick with me – such as this depiction of being in a house when a bomb hits:
After the second stick the raid seemed to shift farther off, and we all got rather drowsy sitting by the hot fire. Mrs. Everyman murmured something about taking the children back to bed. The baby was asleep. Muriel was half asleep, leaning against her mother’s knee. Marta sat smoking and staring into the fire. I began to tell Peter a story. Suddenly there was a whistle, not a very long one, and the floor heaved under our feet. I knew, – I don’t know how, – that it was a stick coming towards us. I jumped up and leaned over Peter in a futile attempt to keep him safe. We could never decide afterwards whether it is true or not that you don’t hear the whistle if the bomb lands very near you. I don’t think I did hear it. Mrs Everyman said she did. The whole room seemed to come up through my stomach. There was a loud explosion, and then a long crash of falling stone. The black-out blew in, the glass cracked, the lights went out. The room was full of smoke and choking dust.
The third part is much shorter – about a boy called Simon (of all things) and him coming to terms with the arrival of his baby brother, in 1935. It was pretty good, but quite different from the tone of the rest of Black Bethlehem, and by that point I was rather tired of the whole thing.
So – not a 1947 book I’d recommend, though also one that I suspect others would enjoy, going into it eyes open. Maybe I read it too quickly to get it finished this week. And I’m still not sure why it’s called Black Bethlehem. Oh well – it still adds to a perspective of the year, which we wouldn’t get if we only read the best books of the year!