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Review: The Glittering Hour, by Iona Grey
St. Martins, 2019. 468 pp. $29

It’s January 1936, and nine-year-old Alice Carew misses her mother terribly. Mama’s away in Burma with Papa, who has mining interests there, and the family’s Wiltshire estate, Blackwood, feels like a prison to Alice. An artistically precocious child with no head for or interest in reading or mathematics, Alice has no allies in the house save her beloved nanny, Polly, who can’t protect her from Grandmama, as starchy and cold an aristocrat as ever graced England’s shores.

The old lady has never liked her grandchild, censors the girl’s letters to her parents, and even denies Alice the colored pencils Mama bought for her. Good grief. Yet despite her grandmother’s and father’s opinion that Alice has a second-rate mind, the girl sees plenty, including their lack of love for her — but not the reason for it. Therein hangs a tale.

However, all this is prologue to Mama’s back story. Selina Carew, née Lennox, was a Bright Young Thing in the Twenties who burned the candle at both ends. With a passion for expensive amusements and a horror of boredom, Selina and her blue-blood friends cut a swath through London at breakneck speed, awash in champagne and jewels, tossing out arch bon mots and trying to decide whether this or that costume party or dance will be too unbearable; really, isn’t there anything better to do? To her family’s horror, the scandal sheets eat this up, from which Selina derives some satisfaction.

Selina’s no airhead (though I reserve judgment on her friends), because if she were, The Glittering Hour would have a flat, spoiled-brat heroine and require a seismic change from her that would strain credulity. Rather, she has deep conflicts, from which she’s trying to hide. She represents the upper-class cohort that survived the Great War and who dash from party to party so as to conceal the pain of loss. But Selina feels it, can’t help it; like so many women of all social classes, she lost a beloved brother at Passchendaele. What’s more, much as it hurts, she refuses to believe that all joy must end, though admittedly, she overdoes it. Worse, none of that may be spoken of:

Seven years on from the armistice and the scars of the war were still visible everywhere. One got adept at looking past them, or through them, or pretending they weren’t there at all. One got on with things in the best way one could; there was always someone worse off, like the man selling matches, or Lady Renshaw, who had lost all three of her boys… One could never complain about one’s own loss. Selina understood why her mother had buried hers in the deepest recesses of her heart and hardened her face against the world. It was her way of coping, of Getting On. But it was a sad legacy for a boy whose smile could light up a room.

Selina meets Lawrence Weston, an artist who makes his living painting portraits based on photographs for war-bereaved families, but whose real passion is photography — which few people consider an art form. Little do they know. For extra money, Lawrence takes pictures of the rich and famous making public nuisances of themselves — he knows about Selina Lennox before they meet — but he prefers photographing miners, the men selling matches, whatever social commentary his lens seeks out.

William Monk’s 1920 engraving of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, a memorial to the war dead. The wooden structure was later replaced in stone (courtesy http://www.abbottandholder-thelist.co.uk/ via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

I understand what Grey’s trying to achieve by starting with Alice, but that approach has its flaws. Though Alice’s predicament squeezes my heart, as it’s meant to, that’s not where the richest material lies. I prefer Selina’s inner struggle as a Bright Young Thing and her relationship to Lawrence, which has so many social markers, the pair might even inhale and exhale differently, for all I know. The class barrier to romance is hardly new, but Grey’s rendering takes on particularity, because she grounds it so thoroughly in active physical detail. It’s not just Lawrence’s shabby clothes or Selina’s accent that set them apart, though those matter and are what onlookers see and hear; it’s how the physical details reveal these two characters’ different worldviews.

On the minus side, the story hinges on two secrets, neither of which is particularly hard to discern, and the narrative has its melodramatic moments, especially toward the end. I wish Grey didn’t resort to telling, rather than showing, emotions in certain key moments— what a shame, for such an astute observer — and the resulting shorthand phrases sometimes go thump. Further, though Grandmama’s portrayal will curdle your blood, she’s that real, Alice’s father seems like a shirt stuffed with papier-mâché.

Even so, The Glittering Hour finds something new to say about the decade after the Great War, and Selina and Lawrence are appealing characters. It’s worth reading for that, if not for more.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.