Anthony Quinn’s 5th novel introduces us to Freya Wylie, who we first meet on VE Day and follow until the early 1960’s. At the start of the novel, Freya, up from Plymouth where she is stationed with the Wrens is experiencing the excited chaos of a jubilant London where she meets for the first time Nancy, an aspiring writer, who has a significant part to play in all that follows. We catch up with the girls as students at Oxford and afterwards when Nancy is writing novels and Freya working in journalism. Freya is spirited and determined, unbowed by working in a chauvinistic discipline and confident of her talents. This gives her a professional reputation of “being difficult” and she makes the men around her nervous. One man who can tame her, however, is college friend Nat Fane, an eccentric dandy also very confident of his own creative abilities- this time in the theatre.
This is the tale of Freya’s life and loves. We do get some sense of the times in which she lives, especially with regards to social issues: the role of women in and out of the workplace, views on homosexuality, immigration and the rise of the media celebrity. Quinn’s novel, is however, far more a detailed character sketch than social history. You do get a feel of the era through the slightly clipped tone of the piece. You can believe totally that these characters inhabit their times through their actions and speech – all of it feels authentic. This is good writing, it is all very convincing and highly readable. The premise of an extraordinary woman’s life over a period of years could feel like something we’ve read many times before but the deft literary touches makes it seem fresh and original and yet the structure gives it the feel of a book written decades ago. I found myself fascinated as to how this was achieved. It works well by getting the reader so involved in Freya’s tale. She’s not always likeable and she can certainly hold grudges but she’s so central that without the reader rooting her on this book could fail. It seems quite a risky gamble but Quinn has created a rich enough character to make this novel a success.
Freya is published on March 3rd 2016 by Jonathan Cape. Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this advance copy.