‘Below her the Peking plain was spread out in the morning light, an expanse of fawn colour fading into blue – the city itself lay under the sun …
Laura Leroy is the wife of a British attaché in Peking in the 1930s. She negotiates the intricacies of life as a diplomatic wife whilst missing her two children who are at boarding school in England. When she agrees to join a picnic trip to the great monastery at Chieh T’ai Ssu, little does she know that amongst the whirlwind of emotions stirred up in this dramatic landscape, a shocking event will call on all her resources, if the party is to survive intact.
Ann Bridge is a lyrical writer, who captures the beauty of the flora and fauna, as well as the drama of the Chinese landscape. The real surprise and joy for me on discovering her novels for the first time is her talent for getting under the skin of her characters. She writes with real feeling and wisdom about love in all its forms. Many times during the novel, I thought of my trips with Wild Frontiers: the excitement and tensions amongst a party of individuals getting to know each other, thrilled by the experience of being out in the wild unknown, meeting local people, and sharing the unexpected wonder of monks at prayer. I laughed out loud at Laura’s arrangements for sleeping in the open courtyard, and the expertise with which she arranges her toilette:
‘In the dimly lighted chamber she set to work with a practiced hand to arrange her few effects… taking a couple of nails from her trouser pocket she drove them into the wall with a brickbat picked up in the courtyard, and hung her pocket mirror on one and her towel on the other. Her spare clothing was placed under the pillow of her camp bed to heighten it, and the camp bed itself shoved up close against the k’ang, so that the latter served as a bed table, on which her book, chocolate, a box of cigarettes, and a candle stuck in a tin saucer were neatly arranged. In a few minutes the room had taken on a curiously inhabited appearance’.
I love Anne Bridge – having just finished her novel set on the Dalmatian Coast ‘Illyrian Spring’, I couldn’t believe my luck when Daunt Books published Peking Picnic last month. She is one of those rare authors who make me feel that she is speaking directly to me. In one of many conversations between Laura and her fellow guests, she discusses with Henri the differences between the English and the French attitudes to romance. In Laura’s opinion ‘we want the impossible even when we know it to be the impossible; we go on being disappointed because we don’t get it; in the midst of our disillusionment we hug our dreams’.
I know this feeling, and cried an internal Yes! on reading this sentence. It is remarkable to me, that a woman writing in the 1930s could articulate my feelings so exactly. The fact that, in describing Professor Vinstead’s reaction to experiencing beauty in the landscape, she quotes my father’s favourite poet, A E Houseman, completes this miracle. If you love travel, if you have ever been through the experience of losing and then finding yourself once again, if you are interested in how we connect with each other, friends and strangers alike, then you will love this novel.
Daunt Books have been publishing books with a strong sense of place, both forgotten classics, and talented new writers, since 2010. Checkout the complete list at their website http://www.dauntbooks.co.uk/publications.asp
Finally, anyone interested in the lives of the adventurous and tough women who married into diplomatic circles should seek out ‘The Shipping Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj’ by Anne de Courcy.