Already, I seem to have talked endlessly about the importance of the theme of belonging in the modern English novel; in almost all 9 books I’ve read so far, the writers have depicted characters who struggle to define their place in society – who feel unwanted or ‘different’, who are literally homeless, who are ostracised or discriminated against or who simply fail to fit into their surroundings, perhaps because they are newcomers to a particular place. In most cases, these characters’ lack of belonging leads to an inability to define one’s own identity, and a perpetual state of misery, loneliness and uncertainty as a result.
Maureen Lee’s The September Girls takes up this mantle of belonging, but also shows another side to it. Her story focusses on the poverty-stricken Caffrey family, who migrate from Ireland to Liverpool, Merseyside, in the ‘20s, in the pursuit of greater things, only to find that the “grand, rich place” (4) they imagined has a great many problems of its own. Strangers in this new and foreign land, they are unwelcome, inferior and utterly worthless – or so residents of Liverpool would have them believe. Here we go again, I thought, another novel about strangers lost in an unfamiliar place which they eventually, in the final pages, learn to love. I didn’t exactly let out a yawn, but we have seen a large proportion of this Bildungsroman framework on our journey through 2000s England. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Lee did not succumb to the usual formula.
Instead of the Caffreys getting down in the dumps about the occasional insults they receive from Liverpudlian locals – “get back to Ireland and take [your] filthy family with [you]” (9) – or pining overmuch for “the sun and the sky, the clouds and the green fields of Ireland” (40), they seem hardly to mind about their change of location. Their sense of belonging is not based, as with other characters we have come across, on their ability to fit in with the world around them, but on their place within the family itself – as long as they have each other, and “a proper house of their own” (3), their universe is complete. Thanks to this strength of identity and the security of the family unit, rarely is there an occasion when they feel lost or insecure about their situation.
In fact, it is the wealthy Marcus and Eleanor Allardyce – who have held a stable and respectable position in the city for generations – whose world comes crumbling down in the course of the novel. When they meet the Caffreys, their life of comfort and luxury is completely opened up; Marcus becomes a “Fish out of Water” (29), is out of place “in his own home” (157) and Eleanor explores “the narrow streets that were virtually on her doorstep, but where [she] had never walked before” (87). The city becomes a foreign environment to this couple more than it ever is to the Caffreys – the classic Bildungsroman formula, in which the protagonists develop over time to fit into society, is unexpectedly turned on its head.
In addition, the context of Lee’s novel allows her to present this theme of belonging in a new and particularly interesting way; the bulk of the novel is set during the course of WW2, in which two of the three Caffrey youngsters take part in horrors abroad while the rest of the family struggles to cope with air raids and strict rationing on the Home Front. In a time in which everyone is fearfully aware of their own mortality, surrounded by individuals who have lost limbs, loved ones and homes, and in which streets and whole city landscapes are being blown apart and nothing is recognisable, everyone’s sense of belonging is in jeopardy, not just that of the new Irish family on the corner, who slip into the melee rather than continue to stand out as foreigners. Things that have previously been taken for granted, like having “four pairs of perfectly good legs” (8) in the family, are called into question in wartime. Freud’s concept of the Uncanny instantly springs to mind, in which something – such as a mutilated human body or a bombed-out row of houses – can be familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time, generating a feeling of intense psychological discomfort due to the confusion between attraction and repulsion.
Another great thing about the novel is the war-related satire. I do love a good bit of satire. In particular, Lee completely undermines the concept of patriotism – as many writers did in the war poetry I’m sure we all must have read at school – which is particularly interesting for me in this journey to pin down an as yet mythical sense of English national identity. The character of Peggy exemplifies this in the line “I thought I was being patriotic [by signing up], but now it seems more like downright foolishness” (228). During wartime of course, people are judged repeatedly on their level of patriotism – labelled cowards or heroes depending on their willingness to fight for their country – when, really, the whole thing becomes a lot of nonsense. The romanticised image of England being all green pastures or bright lights can no longer exist in the imagination to motivate troops abroad, for it no longer exists in reality: hardly any of it is “left standing” (416) by the end of the war. In theory, with the city destroyed, the only characters who should be able to survive in spirit are the Caffreys, whose sense of belonging and identity is founded only on their relationships. Read it for yourself to find out what does happen..!
Overall, I found Maureen Lee’s novel a breath of fresh air. Not only is it set in a period I haven’t yet read about on this challenge, but it is also clearly an important period, in the author’s mind, in the development of Liverpool into what the city represents today. The story was varied and interesting and it is an enjoyable read. Perhaps unfortunately for Lee, I have read very many fantastic World War novels, which makes me all the more aware that this is not as mind-blowingly emotional or symbolic or engaging as some. In fact, I found its length had a detrimental effect on its characterisation, which was revealed as quite static and two-dimensional in the case of the Caffrey family members. However, I’m having to exaggerate the issue just to describe what I found to be minor frustrations – I still rate the novel as a good read at 3/5 stars.
Next week I’ll be reading Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth, which I’m really looking forward to. Have you read it? Let me know what you think!