Little Gods by Anna Richards

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Little Gods by Anna Richards

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Strange and strangely enjoyable tale of love and friendship in the hardest of times. Fresh, and funny, with a more than a touch of the grotesque
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 424 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 033046440X

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Forty-seven days into the war, long before the Luftwaffe came anywhere near our capital, an explosion wrecked the house in which Eugenia (Jean) had suffered her first nineteen years.

Being born to the wistfully named Wisteria was not to be a blessing. The mother had been well-named our narrator tells us: a tough twining climber. Only she never flowered. Gums of lemon rind and teeth of pure alum couldn't produce anything to rival the pure malevolence of the arsehole of a mouth Wisteria sported. Disappointment was her drug of choice…

Jean gets through her earliest years in silent drudgery. She endures at school. Endurance, she decides will be her achievement. As if having a mother who hated her wasn't bad enough, she was born and grew to be a giant among women: sadly only in the very literal sense.

A smaller prettier child would have got away with her strategy of trying to not be seen nor heard. A thumping great walloper hadn't a chance.

She was unloved and friendless. And tried not to mind. Until one day at school, a rescuing angel enters her life. Gloria is small and pretty and adorably sweet – and the daughter of the owners of a sweet-shop to boot. She is irredeemably romantic, a fault succoured by both of her parents, and every smitten glance from the local youth. Her romance however extends beyond her need for love, into a need to rescue the less fortunate. A saint of lost causes if ever there was one, she alights upon Jean.

The rescue is mounted and a life-long friendship develops. Not one without its trials, but perhaps one without bounds.

Little Gods starts with the explosion, but then takes us back to the beginning, so we see the childhood friendship, and what it means as the girls take different paths into adulthood with the war blazing and the Americans arriving.

Somehow they both end up stateside, to find that it is also not quite the Promised Land – or at least not for very long at any one time.

You can't often believe what you read on book covers beyond the title and the author (and sometimes not even that far) but in this case, you will come across the words: rich, gaudy, clever, irrepressible, dark, comic, romantic. Every single one of them absolutely true. It is quite possibly the strangest book I have ever read. Impossible to pigeonhole. Utterly enjoyable.

One minute you will be moved by sadness, or horrified by brutality, only to be smirking aloud at the next description of absurdity. Richards takes such a delight in manipulating language that the early description of Wisteria is but a mere taster. Coming from the north-east of England as I do, I love a picturesque turn of phrase and Richards has enough to satiate the greediest of gleeful linguists: Her large, liquid eyes conspired with her solid frame to put some people in mind of a cow… A steady stream of hopefuls sacrificed skin and dentine at the altar of Gloria…

Her images go on and on…turning the hurtful into the beautiful, scarred skin into a lavish landscape. Lust into something approaching love. The real skill is the ability to switch voice in an instant. The wit is Dorothy Parker sharp and brandished with relish.

Little Gods refers to the fact that love makes little gods of us all, giving us power over people to redeem them or destroy them, to imprison them or set them free. It is a story about love, but only as experienced, given, withheld, longed for, or eschewed by women. The story focusses entirely upon Jean and Gloria. Whilst their beaus and lovers and business partners and profiteers make their appearances, they are but foils to the determination of females to be themselves. It is the women they come into contact with, who truly determine the course of their lives. Women on the bomb sites of London, or in the suburbs of Hollywood. Women who look after the hapless pair or simply scorn them. Mothers. Strangers.

Jean wants to be useful. Gloria wants to be loved. Wisteria wanted simply to be better than she was, on whatever definition came to hand on any given day. Eva wants to be acknowledged, or to be allowed to shine, either will do. Ermeline wants the Lord…or at least she thinks she does.

Women. Young and old. Loved and lonely. All of them bereft in their own ways, all searching for something more. It is a sad and poignant tale.

But it is also a fabulously funny glorious romp of the ridiculous. It should be filmed, except for the fact that since the glory days of the Ealing comedies one can't imagine who could do it justice: keep the hilarity and absurdity, without losing the pain. Apart from the horrors of war, seen close-hand when Jean joins the Women's Civil Defence (demolition squad, naturally!), there's a murder that isn't but is so much worse, divorces, drunks, abandonment, poverty, betrayal, insanity, fake spiritualism, a collapsing big top, a near-suicide or two, and finally an unexpected triumph in Hollywood that isn't without its own darker undercurrent.

Little Gods is above all others a testament to friendship, to love, and to a sheer lack of vanity that allows one to enjoy the body one's been given and make the most of the life that goes with it. Regardless.


I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

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