“Did it ever occur to you that I might have different priorities? What about getting my first salaried job, or my first cover story on the magazine – aren’t they milestones?”
Anthony Quinn came to my attention last year with Curtain Call, which many book bloggers raved about. I still have only a limited idea of its plot, but I gathered that Quinn’s great strength in it was to evoke the 1930s London theatre scene without sacrificing any of the nuances of the historical setting to the murder-mystery plot (something that lots and lots of historically set works do. Lookin’ at you, Downton Abbey.)
His second novel, Freya, does much the same thing for the mid-century world of the highly educated and opportunistic. Beginning on VE Day, when Freya Wyley meets Nancy Holdaway in the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the novel tracks the two women through their Oxford years (or, in Freya’s case, one year; she’s sent down after failing to appear for Mods, her first-year exams) and into their adult years in London during the social upheavals of the 1960s. Robert Cosway, whom Freya and Nancy both meet at Oxford, is a third player in both their lives, while other friends and acquaintances from university crop up regularly too.
It feels a bit unfair to refer to Quinn’s novel as “good old-fashioned storytelling” (in part because prefacing anything with “good old-fashioned” is a great way to convince people it’s worthless, or that you’re a Little England weirdo). Nevertheless, that was the phrase that kept bumping around in my head as I was reading it. It’s not exactly what you’d call a pacy plot, although there are two subplots that could have made novels on their own: one is to do with the outing of a gay civil servant whom Freya was briefly in love with at university, the other to do with the death of a teenage model and It Girl during the London years, whom Freya has been profiling for a newspaper. The fact that Quinn doesn’t make his novel a domestic espionage thriller or another murder mystery is testament to what he’s trying to do instead: anatomize a particular slice of English society at a particular time in (relatively) recent history. He’s also trying to write about female friendship. Freya and Nancy’s relationship isn’t always the most prevalent strand in the book, but it’s omnipresent; they define themselves through how they relate to one another. I read somewhere recently that books about “female friendship” are usually about how women hate one another. Freya isn’t. It wants to explore the fact that people construct ideas about themselves, how they choose friends who can reflect those ideas back to them, and how the deepest kind of friendship very often results in the recognition that your original self-image was skewed or flawed or incomplete.
Although the book is nominally about their friendship, the title of the book isn’t misleading: it’s really a novel about Freya. The Independent’s review compared it explicitly to William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, the protagonist of which is rather conveniently present (though peripheral) at many of the defining events of the twentieth century. Quinn doesn’t quite do that, but the first third of the book sees Freya chasing an elusive journalist, Jessica Vaux (possibly based on a Mitford sister?), to Nuremberg, where the world’s press have gathered to report the Nazi war crimes trials that are dragging on there. While there, she nearly misses Vaux altogether, but a chance encounter on the last night of the week leads to an exclusive, and she stays on, impulsively, for another three days (missing her exams altogether and consequently being sent down). It’s classic Freya: lucky enough to have had some connections, but also daring enough to make the leap, and arrogant enough to believe she’ll land on her feet.
Nancy, on the other hand, is a vaguer character, an aspiring novelist (and eventually a successful one) who tends to be amalgamated into little more than a series of traits: auburn hair, gentle voice. You could object to this, I suppose, on the grounds that she’s made into a sort of soft-focus “lady novelist”; some reviewers have. On the other hand, you could see that Quinn is approaching her characterisation this way because he’s writing from Freya’s point of view, and Freya is first and foremost concerned with her own appearance to others, her own success. She loves Nancy deeply and honestly, but she doesn’t often pay that much attention to her. When, late in the novel, she reads one of Nancy’s own books after a long estrangement, she’s taken aback by the sharpness, the perspicacity, in her friend’s prose. This is a woman with a gift for observation and analysis, one that Freya finds hard to reconcile with the gentle, encouraging friend that she knows.
There are other marvelous characters as well, including Nat Fane, an actor, playwright and impresario whose arrogance outstrips Freya’s and whose penchant for spanking is returned to several times throughout the course of the novel. Fane is fascinating because he could so easily tip into caricature; in many ways he genuinely is a caricature, albeit a self-created and self-maintained one. What Quinn captures, though, is the fundamental sincerity of self-creation, the deep investment that such a person has in others’ opinions. Fane may be supremely convinced of his own talent, but when he lands in London, his reputation as a “brilliant boy” doesn’t do him any favors. He finds his niche, but it’s not quite the one he expected to fill. There’s also Robert Cosway, whose charisma and coldness in pursuit of a story are also a match for Freya’s. The major crisis of the novel is precipitated by Robert’s betrayal of an old friend for a front-page scoop; Freya, whose judgment is as unyielding as her self-confidence, can no longer work with Robert or even see him socially, and the repercussions of her decision on her relationship with Nancy (who by this time has married Robert) are severe.
In the end, it’s the characters who really run the show. That major plot crisis is indeed significant, but only because we have come to know and care about the people to whom it unfolds. There is an incredible texture to Quinn’s world: colors, smells, architecture, music. Oxford squares and London streets are delineated with a casual precision that makes us feel we are really there, that we can see the golden stone of Banbury Road or the sooty brick of Islington. There is, too, a lovely resilience to the friendship of Freya and Nancy. Circumstances and principles may separate them temporarily, even for years, but by the end of the book, we know that their love for each other is the most important thing. The novel is crammed with incident, but the incidents aren’t as significant as the long, slow process of getting to know and trust another person. Other critics have seen it as a failure of plot; I prefer to think of it as a triumph of scene-setting, and of a subtle, masterful grasp of emotions.
Thanks very much to Joe Pickering at Jonathan Cape for the review copy. Freya was published in the UK on 3 March.