LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Propped against her pillows, wearing a silk quilted bed-jacket, Margaret was writing in her diary. It was something she did two or three times a week. Generally the entries were brief, little more than an aide memoire to the even flow of weeks and months. Nothing much happened in her life of note or of such personal intimacy that she could confide only in the diary. Nevertheless she kept it locked away in one of the side drawers of the bedroom bureau – to which she alone had a key.
Innocuous though the entries were, she would not have liked Bernard to read them … could not imagine even that he would be remotely interested in them. A long time ago Bernard had withdrawn into his own world.
commentary: Victor Canning wrote thrillers, and they were the kind of paperback that, in my young years, people’s Dads had on their bookshelves – along with books by Gavin Lyall, Alastair MacLean, Wilbur Smith and Hammond Innnes. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read one before, but I was tipped into trying this one by a review (ages ago) over at Leaves and Pages – ‘much better than I’d hoped for’ was Barb’s summing up.
It wasn’t at all what I was expecting: yes, there was the middle class setting, the urgent matters of state, and the lost papers. But I wasn’t expecting the very very unusual and unlikely love affair, and the low-level hints of a different kind of relationship elsewhere.
The book begins with Margaret Tucker doing some shoplifting – she takes sweets (apparently in a fugue state) and then gives them to orphan children. She is unhappy: she knows her marriage is dead.
Her husband Bernard is a man with secrets, employed by an intelligence department. The couple don’t talk: and she sits in her lonely cottage while he has a flat and a mistress in London.
Two parallel plots are set in motion: Margaret meets someone else (whose thoughts we are privy to, and who does not seem like a good thing) and Bernard is involved in a plan to blow the trade union movement sky-high by revealing betrayal and corruption.
Whenever I thought I knew what kind of a book it was, the plotline would confound me. Bernard sets off for a country house weekend with a press baron, a Duke, the Duke’s daughter, and a leading trade unionist. So I know where I am with that (from reading, not from personal experience of course) – but then the visit is cut short, and almost nothing is made of the event. There is really more in the book about the painting skills of Margaret’s lover than about the country house visit. (And, again unexpectedly, he is a really terrible painter.)
Someone dies. A wristwatch goes missing, along with some papers. Two hard-faced operatives come down from London to try to make sense of the events.
At one point there is a legal enquiry which involves Margaret admitting her marriage is over:
When [she was] asked if there was some other man specifically concerned with her decision [to ask for a divorce] she had said there was, and had been allowed to write down his name and pass it across.This is because she is posh and rich – there’s the old days of 1974 for you, no wonder the trade unions are plotting revolution.
There were surprises right up to the end: this really is a most peculiar book. The pages describing Margaret’s affair are very odd, and feel as though they belong in another kind of novel altogether, where I think they would be dismissed as rather trashy. But, like Barb at Leaves and Pages, I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable and unexpected the book was.
I have no idea why it is called The Mask of Memory.
Bedjackets were such a feature of a past life, and of course Margaret would have a silk quilted one. The only surprised is that there isn’t an old dear from the village bringing her a tray in bed. Above is a pattern for bedjackets.