In Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, twenty-one of Mollie Panter-Downes stories about life in the United Kingdom during the Second World War, first published in The New Yorker, are collected.
In some ways, this collection reminded me of Henrietta’s War, but although, like Dennys’ stories, Mollie Panter-Downes focus is most of all on domestic life, I felt they were a little less lighthearted, and dealt with women on the margins more often. In tone and style, they may be more fruitfully compared to Dimanche and Other Stories, by Irene Némirovsky. I think it would be rather interesting to reread all three books close together once, and compare notes.
The windows into live during the war that Panter-Downes provides in this collection all seem very real. There is no shying away from difficult topics, such as in “It’s the Reaction”, in which a woman misses the opportunities for social interaction with neighbours during the air-raids, or in “Good Evening, Mrs Craven”, where the position of insecurity for a mistress of one of the soldiers is discussed:
“Don’t think I’m being stupid and morbid,” she said, “but supposing anything happens. . . . You might be wounded or ill and I wouldn’t know.” She tried to laugh. “The War Office doesn’t have a service for sending telegrams to mistresses, does it?”
The strength of this collection is in Panter-Downes sharp and careful style, never using too many words for what could be expressed in a few. Like Henrietta’s War, it tells the stories of those not immediately in the war zones in Europe, but who felt the effect of the war and the air-raids on Britain nonetheless. Perhaps a little more dark and bleak than Dennys’ stories, Panter-Downes succeeded in making her characters and stories come to life, which results in a strangely heartwarming feeling when reading. Altogether, I may have appreciated the reality of these stories a little more than the comedy in Henrietta’s War, although I did love both books.
It has been a while since I read this, and I remember sitting in a train from Brussels to London, occasionally smiling, laughing, holding back tears, or simply reflecting. There were many sections I wished to discuss, but sadly, I remember few particulars. All I can say is: Go read it, I promise you it will be worthwhile.
Other Opinions: She Reads Novels, Things Mean A Lot, The Book Trunk, Hannah Stoneham’s Book Blog, Chasing Bawa, BooksPlease, My Porch, A Book A Week, Savidge Reads, Buried in Print, The Boston Bibliophile.
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