My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Girls of Slender Means is straightforward and understated, but it’s a story built around a central riddle. The background to the riddle is a single summer in London at the conclusion of the Second World War in and around the May of Teck Club, a sort of group home for poor, young working-class women. (As Spark explains, everyone in England is poor during this period, even those who aren’t). A cross between a boarding school and an apartment complex, the girls go about their lives in a strange twilight between the bombed-out landscape of London on one hand and the growing certainty of peace on the other. This transitional period in time goes along with the transitional nature of the May of Teck inhabitants: besides the few seasoned spinsters, for the rest of the women it is an in-between place, in between girlhood and adulthood and halfway to a job or a career or a husband. No one will remain there for long. They’re all on their way to other places, eventually– a point emphasized by the fact that the narrative of this single summer is interspersed with snippets of telephone conversations as the grown women mull over the puzzle of those days and their outcome.
There are two threads woven against this background throughout the novel. The first is the mystery, more on which in a moment. The second is poetry. Joanna, one of the boarders at the May of Teck and the only daughter of a country parson, gives lessons in elocution, and the snatches of poetry overheard from the upper levels of the large house provides a constant baseline for the day to day activities taking place therein. Poetry haunts the story, sometimes foreshadowing but always giving an underscore to the wistful atmosphere Spark creates.
The second thread is the riddle of Nicholas, an aimless writer and half-hearted anarchist who wanders into the orbit of the May of Teck over the course of the summer. Within the first few pages of the novel, from the sketchy phone conversations Spark drops us into, we learn that whatever else has happened to Nicholas he at some point since this summer has become a Jesuit priest and was been recently martyred in Haiti. The news of Nicholas’s death spurs Jane, one of the inhabitants of the May of Teck that summer who was then an aspiring writer and is now a successful new columnist, to reflect on the events that led to his conversion. And a conversion of some sort it must have been, for he is not especially devout at the beginning of that summer of 1945 when his primary interest in the May of Teck Club seems to be trying to get Selina, one of the Club’s inhabitants, to sleep with him on the roof.
I’m reminded of Gene Wolfe’s short story “Suzanne Delage” in which the only remarkable thing about the story is that nothing at all remarkable appears to have happened even though something remarkable is implied. This novel has the same feel in that we know Nicholas’s eventual fate, but we see only hints of what may have compelled him toward it. Nicholas enters the novel as one drifting through life, wasting his time and perhaps his talents (though he has a book manuscript he is trying to get Jane’s publisher to publish), fascinated by the poverty and the communal life of the girls in the May of Teck Club (as well as the girls themselves). Besides the meandering philosophical conversations he has with particular members of the Club– with Joanna’s poetry constantly drifting down from above– we get only a single glimpse of a spiritual crisis in the sudden and unexpected catastrophe that concludes the novel. The entire explanation of Nicholas’s spiritual trajectory, which is the admitted impetus of recalling the events of this particular summer, remain obscure and out of the picture.
It is a novel lending itself to many interpretations, and we’re left with Jane to make of it what we may. One possible interpretation is that Nicholas is drawn to the Edenic aspects of the Club– their shared innocence of poverty and youth– and that he is driven to a spiritual crisis when the snake in the garden is ultimately revealed in the pettiness and selfishness of the Club’s final moments, contrasted with an example of faith and pointless sacrifice. His reaction here, and his telling realization that “No place is safe,” are perhaps all the answer we get to his ultimate fate.
The book is as slender and wistful as the girls who figure within it. And as mysterious. In the end, there are no clear answers. Nicholas is dead, and Jane is casting her memories back to that single summer in which their lives intersected. The War is over, and against that background of tragedy and celebration one man makes a quiet and secret decision to change the course of his life. We’re on the outside, trying to make sense of it, which is what makes the book so powerful: this is almost always our own perspective, trying to piece together the clues that might tell us something about the hearts of those around us.