Author: Jane Gardam
Details: (c) Jane Gardam 2000; Pub Abacus 2001; ISBN 0-349-11424-2
Verdict: The Flight of the Maidens is poetic and thought-provoking, but a little inaccessible.
Reasons for reading it: I like Jane Gardam a lot; she's another of my uncle's finds.
How it came into my hands: The amazing little second-hand bookshop in Lochee which sells the most incredible things for almost no money.
I find it hard to review Jane Gardam, partly because she has a slightly weird prose style, and it's incredibly infectious. In many ways The Flight of the Maidens typifies both Gardam's strengths and her weaknesses. The language is very poetic, and the existence of late teenage girls is very acutely observed, and the whole is almost magically atmospheric. But all these things make the book hard to relate to. The poetic language makes Gardam less readable than most mainstream novels, and the sense of alienation and unconnectedness with reality of Gardam's heroines is so keenly portrayed that it makes it hard for the reader to connect with the book.
One thing that's perhaps less typical Gardam about tFotM is a rather broader cast of characters. Using three viewpoint characters rather than one makes the story a lot less claustrophobic, and the differences between the three of them underline that they are more than just Stock Jane Gardam Teenage Girls. Also, there's quite a lot of characterisation of the various adults that the three girls interact with; there's plenty of the typical Gardam trick of devastatingly vivid portraits of people who only appear for two lines, but also some really interesting glimpses of Hester's parents and Una's mother.
The other thing that's a little atypical of the author is the historical reality which clashes head on with the detached self-absorption of the girls. There's a stark and effective contrast between the girls' attitude that living through WW2 as teenagers is on the whole a fun experience - the only effect the war really has on their lives is that everything's a bit chaotic and this gives them more freedom than they would otherwise expect - and Lieselotte's realization that her entire family have been killed in Germany while she was living fairly obliviously with her foster parents in England. All the same, tFoTM is in no way a Holocaust novel; that side is very much only one plot arc.
What TFotM is mainly about is about growing up, which in a way is a fairly banal subject for a novel. But it's extremely interestingly done, and the interwoven stories of the three girls put across their uniting theme very cleverly. In the course of the book, all three girls learn to take responsibility for their own lives and their own decisions, and start to appreciate that what makes them happy is not necessarily the most obvious option. TFotM very nicely ends with a beginning; the three girls start their first university term ready to become the protagonists of their own lives, rather than being children to whom things passively happen. The impression is that they are about to start living as adults, rather than that they are going to live happily ever after.