June 8, 2012
The festivities are finished, the ships have gone back to port, the world is safe once more for cucumbers: The Jubilee celebration is over. But some, I know, are still burning with Jubilee Fever, and have we got the book for you: The Second-Last Woman in England doesn’t merely reference the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, it revolves around it. The central action of the book occurs while the Wallis family – about whom more in a moment – is gathered to watch the coronation on their splendid, newly-purchased-for-the-occasion television set, with its majestic 12-inch screen.
Of course, that could be merely an accident of plotting, the way some writers set books in New York City without ever sending their characters to a Mets game or treating them to a pastrami sandwich. This could be a book like that, and an unscrupulous marketing department would nevertheless pounce upon this accident, hook it to the “news peg” of the recent Jubilee, and use the combo to seduce you, lure you in with false promises of nostalgic satisfactions, of the literary equivalent of Eton mess – sweet, delicious, and so very, very English.
But we have no such marketing department, and while I could certainly draw culinary correlations to The Second-Last Woman in England, I would be more inclined to think of a good venison stew – dark, complex, and made the more flavorsome by a faint whiff of danger. And, yes, very, very English, because this is unmistakably an English story, not just because of the coronation, but because of everything – the war, the Depression (much more violent than it was over here), the second war, the Blitz, the bombs, the rationing and no soap, no nylons, no sugar for your tea, no tea, nothing decent to wear, nothing decent to eat, and it just went on and on and on – that lead up to it. The plot of The Second-Last Woman is rooted in a particular kind of desperation – a kind of desperation that those of us on this side of the Atlantic can, I think, only barely imagine – and in the incredible, desperate hope represented by the new young queen. The Wallis family (remember them? At the center of the story?) has been shaped by that desperation, and is clinging to the hope of a better tomorrow like it was the last helicopter out of Saigon. (Did I majorly mix some metaphors there? I did, I truly did.)
If the England you love and love reading about is the tourists’ version, all Stratford and cream teas and Cockney rhyming slang, then walk on by. This is not your book, and you’ll hate it, like discovering the girl of your dreams wears a retainer at night and was fat in junior high. But if you’re up for a more nuanced, un-prettified portrait, then jump on The Second-Last Woman. She will knock your socks off.
Of course – and much though it might pain the British Marketing Board to admit this – not everyone is a fan of her present Majesty. She failed to appreciate Diana, her husband is a creep with horrendous politics, her granddaughters wear really bad hats…whatever your issue, there are undoubtedly many who share it, and several of them have started websites. But we got no axe to grind here: You wish Queen Elizabeth had never ascended the throne? We have a book for you, too! Run, do not walk, and get yourself a copy of the brilliant King and Joker, by Peter Dickinson.
The monarch in this world is not Queen Elizabeth, or even a Windsor: It is King Victor II, great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria, and a licensed physician (though Parliament, to his great irritation, refuses to let him practice). The Prince of Wales is a vegan, the Queen has a thick Spanish accent, and Princess Louise….sufice to say she has many secrets, confiding some though not all to her ancient and much-loved nanny. The plot, the storyline, concerns a series of practical jokes being perpetrated on the royal family, jokes that are growing increasingly more sinister and less amusing. But its heart is in the relationship between the teenage princess and her dying nanny. If you can read their last scene together without sobbing, you’re a tougher broad than I am, Gunga Din. It’s terribly sad. But Dickinson is a genius, so it’s also exquisite.
Come to think of it, The Second-Last Woman is also rather a heartbreaker. If you’re familiar with Felony & Mayhem, you’ll know that this is not a particular theme of ours. Crime fiction is about escape, after all, and if we make our audience cry all the time, we won’t have much of an audience. But of course, there can be great escape in weeping over someone else’s sadness.
As a former journalist, I’m so tempted to tie this up in a neat rhetorical bow, something to the effect of “So if your summer days are too bright and sunny, bring the world back into balance by reading a sad book.” But that’s nonsense. The truth is, these are both extraordinary books, and I would recommend them in the dead of winter. Should you wash them down with a Coronation Chicken sandwich and some tea in a commemorative mug? Your choice.