06/09/2004

Swansea Girls (by Catrin Collier)

I'd never heard of Catrin Collier before I was given this book. I don't tend to read novels set in the 1950s unless I already know of the author, but this one looked fairly interesting, and I'll try any author once.

'Swansea Girls' is is a novel about the lives of four eighteen-year-old girls who live in the same street in Swansea. It's in the days when the highlight of the week for girls of this age was the Saturday night dance. It's also at a time when dating was a formal procedure with a definite etiquette, class consciousness was still somewhat strong, and most boys had to do army service.

I found the characters to be quite believable, although it took me a few chapters to distinguish the four girls completely, and longer still to sort out their parents, brothers and friends. Primarily the book is character-driven, and charts the day-to-day life, family squabbles and romances of these girls.

As the book opens, they are preparing to go to a dance, and discussing a boy called Adam who is good-looking, friendly, and who has just returned from the army. Helen is determined to snare him as a boyfriend so she has 'borrowed' a glamorous and rather revealing evening gown from her father's warehouse. Her friends are shocked at how much flesh is shown by this gown, and also by her having taken it without asking her father first; however their shock does more to goad Helen into wearing it than dissuading her.

At the dance, the 'nicer' boys are also shocked at Helen's attire, which is quite out of place for a local gathering of friends. The other three girls find dancing partners easily and enjoy the evening, while she has to endure stares from some, and being ignored by others. Eventually a lad called Jack - who has something of a bad reputation - talks to her and they decide to go outside for a chat. Jack goes to buy drinks, and Helen is spotted by a drunk upper-class young man who has just arrived at the dance, and who thinks she is a tart. He attempts to seduce her, and Jack comes to the rescue...

This event is the changing-point of many lives, and is the catalyst for the unfolding of the rest of the book. Gradually we get to know all the families involved, discovering more and more interconnections between them.

I found myself quite immersed in this novel as it progressed, wanting to know what would happen to the people concerned, and also interested in the general historical background. Several issues were covered in a realistic way, giving me quite an insight into the society of the time.

I found myself, rather to my surprise, reading this book at every spare moment. It wasn't that the various plotlines were particularly exciting, but I was caught up in the everyday lives of these people, wanting to know what would happen next. There were one or two moments when I found tears in my eyes, which is always a good indicator that I found the characters truly sympathetic. I cared what happened to them, and felt sad when they were hurt or upset.

The conclusion of a book is important to me too, and this one was entirely satisfactory. Threads were drawn together well, with a positive outlook for those involved. Obstacles had been overcome, albeit not necessarily in the expected or obvious way, and there were things to look forward to.

(My longer review of Swansea girls can be found at the Ciao site)

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