I just read one of those books that I wanted to remain inside.
“Mom, are you making dinner?”
“No, I’m busy with my book.”
“I thought you finished it an hour ago.”
I should have guessed this about East of Temple Bar, Joan Suter’s first novel, by the opening pages, which felt so engagingly real. Having read only the first chapter, I sent a quick message over to Brian Busby — who recommended it, and whose copy I was reading — to rave about how I wanted my dear friend Kit in England, who had been a sub-editor on The Guardian, to read it. Sadly, she does not have access to a copy. I’m now on the hunt for two copies to purchase: one for her, one for myself. It has certainly made it onto the shelf of books I want to own in first edition.
Joan Suter Walker is best known for her 1953 humorous memoir, Pardon My Parka, the account of her experiences as a war bride moving to Val-d’Or, Quebec, which won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour in 1954. I can’t believe that it could be better than East of Temple Bar, which stands so strong as a first novel. Something feels so real about the world of Fleet Street in the 1930s that she creates, but that should be no surprise given her biography.
Born in London in 1908, and educated there and in Switzerland, she began by writing advertisements for Harrod’s, then briefly worked as the editor of Children’s Sketch before becoming a sub-editor for the Amalgamated Press, a role fictionalized in her novel. As in the novel, too, she was also a freelance writer of short fiction. Other elements of her biography also feature in her novel — her own varied experiences split between her two primary characters, Eve Smith and Hugh Fenwick — but it is her familiarity with the life of a working reporter and the ethos of Fleet Street that creates the authenticity of character and scene that is the foundation of East of Temple Bar’s success.
At one point, though, I almost stopped reading. After the first chapter of impressive writing, there is a point at which the momentum of the narrative crashes up against an emotional wall. Full stop. Let me explain. You can decide if I am being too harsh. You know I got over it.
Hugh and Eve meet by accident in the autumn of 1930, and through completely believable circumstances she is instrumental in launching his career, and he gives her the push she needs to pursue hers. She is immediately successful, and despite his minor jealousies the two remain supportive friends and end up taking an office together, both ultimately going freelance, and carrying on their several relationships with other individuals. On page 29, though, just before a set of four ominous asterisks, comes the romantic foreshadowing.
It was very silent for a moment in the little office. Hugh opened his mouth to say, “But, Eve, what about you and me? …” But the telephone bell rang and he lifted the receiver to hear the voice of his favourite blonde. He settled back in his chair, the receiver cradled to his ear and winked at Eve, and the moment was lost.
Perhaps if it hadn’t been, the whole course of Eve’s life might have changed. She might never have become Mrs. Roger Pelham and Lewis Randall wouldn’t have wakened up in the middle of the night cursing the day he ever met her.
This is only page 29. And this is not a Harlequin Romance – one does not necessarily trust that all will work out in the end, and Suter has already shown that she is quite willing to force her characters through difficult emotions and her readers with them. I wasn’t sure I wanted to live through what was to come in Eve’s life, to be honest. It is to Suter’s credit that while the foreshadowing was not deceptive, the characters’ lives were handled with care — or maybe the readers’ lives were. Hard to say. At least, this reader felt, at the end, that what Eve and Hugh and Roger and Lewis lived through was very real, and while heart-rending at time, neither contrived nor untenable. I felt Eve’s pain, at so many points, but when she recovered, that felt honest, too. There were one or two places where I wanted to smack her for being a bit obtuse, but I was not a woman in the 1930s, and I recognize that the gendered navigation of that world are beyond my ability to judge in retrospect. The final scene reveals the depth of self-knowledge and strength Eve has gained through her trials: again, not so much as to be unbelievable, but enough to justify her moving forward.
I’m not very good at plot summary without spoilers, so I won’t try. Joan Suter herself married quickly and later divorced, then emigrated to Canada and married a Canadian army major, James Rankin Walker. There are parallels in the book, but they don’t exactly line up, so I can’t read Pardon My Parka and expect to have any glimpse of what happens beyond East of Temple Bar. But I wish I could. I generally think that sequels tend to reveal a lack of imagination (in Hollywood at least), but in this case, I really wish there were one.