Friday, 12 August 2016

Birdcage by Victor Canning

 
published 1978

 
 
Birdcage
 


With a calmness which surprised her she went about selecting clothes to wear. After eight years of the same habit her freedom of choice was too fresh an acquisition to stir her. She opened the wardrobe and picked out a plain blue heavy cotton dress with a high collar and a skirt which came well down over her knees. In a dressing-table drawer she found a brassiere which by lengthening its strap was a comfortable fit for her full breasts; breasts – the memory swam back, making her half smile now – which had embarrassed her by their early fullness when she was a schoolgirl.

In the same drawer she found brown tights, a small pair of white panties and a short silk underslip. In the bottom of the wardrobe was a row of shoes, but as they were all too small for her she settled for a pair of loose alpargatas.

 
 
commentary: Alpargatas are canvas rope-soled sandals, espadrilles, as you would probably guess.

When I blogged on Canning’s Rainbird Pattern (‘the best thriller I have read in a long time’ I said) in May, one of the many visitors and commenters was John Higgins, who runs a remarkable Victor Canning website, a detailed and fascinating place, highly recommended.

JH kindly fed my fascination with bedjackets by listing the four mentions in the whole of the Canning oeuvre (see this post and this one for the source of my interest, and see JH's remarks in the comments to the first one) – but he also made very helpful suggestions when I asked him which Canning I should try next. This was first on his list, AND it has a bedjacket in it:
Farley, in his pyjamas and dressing gown, gave the partly open door of the bedroom a bunt with his backside and went in carrying the breakfast tray. Sarah was sitting up in bed, a short silk bedjacket slipped over her shoulders.
And of course John was right – it’s an excellent thriller and I enjoyed it hugely, despite racing through the final pages at the speed of light worrying about the fate of one particular character. (And ‘a bunt with his backside’ is undoubtedly my phrased of the month.)

Sarah is a nun when we first meet her: she is making a journey by bus to the coast of Portugal. Gradually I realized that she was not an old nun close to death, which had been my first thought. She is a young nun leaving the convent for her own reasons, in the depths of despair. She encounters the rather splendid Richard Farley – he takes her back to the house where he is staying, and offers her the clothes of a friend in the above sequence. Incidentally, although there is nothing wrong with the description above, you wouldn’t think for a moment that a woman had written it.

Sarah, it turns out, has a tangled background: a very difficult mother, doubt over her paternity, and too many connections with the dubious spying outfit (threaded through several books) of the title, the Birdcage. She went to the convent to get away from all this, but now it seems her mother left her a legacy, and one that could end in tears for several people.

We watch the story unfold from several points of view, and I was wincing at some turns in the plot, and shocked by others, and the finale had me breathless. Canning’s spooks are amoral and satanic. They are convinced that they are working for the ultimate self-centred good – which would mean power in the right places - and that that justifies anything. It does not give you a cheerful view of the world. These are very dark books, and (of course) tied up in the British class system: there is certainly no idea that the British toffs have a strong sense of honour, or are above getting their hands dirty. (One of-its-time feature is that people often use French and Latin phrases, without Canning feeling the need to explain them.)

The romance between Sarah and Farley is charming – I loved his thinking of her:
There was a suggestion somewhere – not of the past nun – but of what? A junior mistress at a girls’ school who would find marriage long before she began to think of a headmistress-ship.
One has such hopes for their relationship…

There is a description of Lady Jean – Sarah’s wicked mother – and although it is an oil painting in the book, it reminded me very much of this picture of the Baroness de Guestre from the Library of Congress, which I used for an earlier Nancy Mitford entry:

 
birdcage 2
 
She stood at the top of a short flight of steps. At her side geraniums cascaded from a stone urn … The breeze took the stuff of her long flowing dress so that it flared backwards from her, billowing about her arms and sides and clinging boldly to her long slender body… About her waist was a wide gold belt or girdle.
The gold belt is the source of some of the trouble in the book.

It took me a few hurried hours to race through Birdcage – and now I’m looking forward to the next one on John Higgins’ list.

The top picture is from Kristine’s photostream.























10 comments:

  1. I'm already interesting, Moira. I have a soft spot for stories where you know there's more to someone's past than it seems, as is the case here. And it's interesting to see how women adjust when they leave the convent. There are several of them out there, too. Hmm.....I ought to do a post on that *head buzzing* - thanks for the inspiration!

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    1. Oh great idea, I'll look out for that! And yes, Canning certainly had an eye for those instantly-intriguing plotlines.

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  2. How many times have I gone from your page to Amazon, only my credit card knows for sure.

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    1. I'm taking that as a compliment - thanks for the kind words, though sorry about your bank balance!

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  3. I look forward to exploring more Canning. I have Rainbird Pattern (unread and also uncataloged so I thought I had lost it). I have Doomsday Carrier which comes before this one. So I hope I get to them soonish. The one I have read is Firebird.

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    1. Rainbird Pattern is still my best one, but I am looking forward to reading more of them. He's a great discovery for me this year.

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  4. Glad you enjoyed - I have a couple including this, for reading who knows when...

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    1. I'll be interested to know what you make of him - I've liked all the ones I've read, and am looking forward to lazily and slowly working my way through them all.

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  5. Moira: Several priests and brothers left the monastery while I was in high school a few year before Birdcage was published. I do not believe they left in despair. Most appeared to want a marriage and family. I am a little surprised Sarah was accepted into an Order. Religious orders know you cannot escape your problems by entering an abbey or a monastery.

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    1. I think Canning (and possibly Sarah) saw the convent as a perfectly reasonable place to spend a few years while she needed that simple life, to stay safe and sort herself out, then leave when she was ready. I don't think that is how the RC church of the time would have seen it, but it's a point of view!

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