Jane Graham is 27 years old, unmarried, and pregnant. Her father, shocked at the news, has turned her out, and although she has a job that pays reasonably well, she knows she needs to save every penny she can, so she rents a small room at the top of a run-down house in a poor London neighborhood. Initially resistant to all offers of help, she soon gets past her pride and her prejudice and comes to rely on her housemates, especially a writer named Toby and a musician named John.
There’s a lot to like about this book. Author Lynne Reid Banks depicts Jane as a woman who is both worldly and innocent, free-thinking and conservative. She believes that there was nothing wrong with having sex outside marriage, but she regrets the encounter (her first and only time having sex) that got her pregnant. She doesn’t object to abortion, but feels distaste when it’s suggested. Especially given that the book was published in 1960, I could appreciate the way Jane would have been shaped by the general public attitudes of the time but also open to different ideas. There’s complexity and nuance in Banks’s characterization of Jane and her feelings about her situation that worked well for me.
What worked less well was the casual racism peppered throughout the book. To some degree, the racism is, I think, meant to be something Jane needs to grow out of. Her first reaction at seeing John, who is black, in her window is to scream, and comments about his smell are frequent. Not all of these comments are meant to be insulting, but they’re uncomfortable to read today. Jane gradually warms to John and grows to love him, and I think would regret her initial reaction to him.
There’s a similar problem with Toby’s Jewishness, although the character who makes the worst comments is described as anti-Jew and the narrative seems to disapprove of his attitude. I found Toby a frustrating character for other reasons. He’s a sensitive artist type, and Jane spends a lot of time agonizing over his feelings and what she can do to protect his talent. I didn’t like him, although I found his relationship with Jane to be interesting. I’m not convinced that we’re meant to love him as Jane does. Jane gets a lot of things wrong, and although Toby is not a bad person, there are plenty of reasons to think she gets him wrong. I understand the book has two sequels, and I’m curious as to whether and how Toby will figure into these.
One of the ideas that comes up throughout the book is the difficulty of relating to other people and the absolute necessity of doing so. Every single character has his or her own motivations for helping Jane (or not), and it’s not always possible for Jane to work out who is a good help and who isn’t. Sometimes the people who are trying to help aren’t actually helpful, and the best helpers aren’t always the kindest people. Luckily, Jane has pretty good enough instincts when it comes to serious matters to avoid disaster on a couple of occasions. What I liked is that characters are allowed to be a mix of good and bad, selfish and cruel. A little like this book, mostly good, but with wince-inducing moments of terribleness that I could only barely shake.