Instead, I’m going to write about The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith, which Steph at Bloomsbury sent me a while ago. Its subtitle is A Memoir of a Cornish Childhood Between the Wars, which is exactly what it is. Before I go any further, I must praise David Mann and Victoria Sawdon – for Jacket Design and Illustration respectively. What a stunning book. In the publishing world, people seem to endlessly copy one another with their covers – hundreds of Joanne Harris/Jon McGregor/Kate Morton lookalikes. Bloomsbury have really done something different, and it is beautiful – Mann and Sawdon must be at the top of their game, or they should be.
Right. Onto the content of the book. Emma Smith was known to me as the writer of a Persephone book, The Far Cry, which I’ve yet to read. She’s also a Shakespeare lecturer at Oxford, but that’s a different Emma Smith. I wasn’t aware that this Emma Smith was still alive, which sounds rude, but not everyone reaches their 85th birthday. She’s (sensibly) waited until late in life (one assumes) to write this memoir of her childhood – and rather brilliant it is, too.
The Hallsmiths, as was their name, aren’t an astoundingly unusual family, but have striking points – misanthropic father who resents being in a lowly position at his bank and craves fame; mother who has lost three previous fiancees; twin boy and girl – the boy fairly sickly, the girl stubborn and adventurous; Elspeth, the author. Elspeth’s early childhood is spent on and around the Great Western Beach, and the beach, alongside the family’s various homes, forms the locations for this autobiography.
I think the most useful way I can write about this book is to describe the style. First person, but neither from the author’s current perspective, nor from the child’s. It is all written as though she were looking back at the events from a distance of only a couple years – some hindsight and analysis is permitted, but alongside childhood ignorance of certain things, and a child’s language. Actually, the vocabulary is an adult’s, but many paragraphs end with sentiments such as ‘It’s not fair! Not fair!’ How does Emma Smith make this mixture of voices and tones and persons work? I don’t know, but it does. The Great Western Beach isn’t irritating or affected; somehow the view of a child is presented convincingly, without losing the slants of wisdom which are the memoir-writer’s prerogative.
Despite the comforting title, this is no cosy childhood. Her father is unloving and mean. She watches her brother struggle through a miserable childhood. Twice she is almost victim to sexual abuse from strangers. But The Great Western Beach is as far from miserylit as it is possible to get – where others, with less material, would have written a Tragic Childhood Memoir (WH Smith actually has a stand called this…), Emma Smith writes an honest but calm book – the good alongside the bad. Her powers of recall are frankly astonishingly – presumably the conversations are not verbatim, but I wouldn’t be able to write a chapter on my childhood, let alone a book, at a quarter of Smith’s age.
Perhaps the most moving section is Smith’s Afterword, which unsettles all the assumptions I’d made:
O my parents, my poor tragic parents – my good and beautiful, brave, dramatic, unperceptive mother; my disappointed, embittered, angry, lonely, talented father: locked, both of them, inside a prison they had not deserved, for reasons they didn’t understand, by conventions they took as immutable laws. I see them now as they were in my childhood: blindly struggling, trapped by social circumstances beyond their control, governed by inherited prejudices not worthy of them. How I wish I could have saved you, set you free, given you the happiness you once expected, all the success you had hoped and longed for, and never managed to make your own. Forgive me, my father, my mother. I have written this memoir, however much it may seem to be otherwise, out of great pity, and with great love.