This is a wonderful book. Norman Lewis had a most remarkable and peculiar childhood and early adulthood. He was sent from proto-suburban pre-war Enfield to live with his grandfather and three aunts in Carmarthen, 'Welsh Wales'. All three aunts were a bit touched and hilariously funny descriptions by Lewis lighten what were in fact very sad, strange and pitiful lives. He captures the stultifying pettiness and conformity of deeply provincial lives with unsentimental clarity and insight.
Back in Enfield, his father, a very reluctant pharmacist, gave up his day-job to become a medium, he and Lewis's mother having embraced Spiritualism. Again. Lewis writes with laugh-out-loud humour about scenes and events that at bottom were really rather pathetic and not a little bizarre.
Lewis lived through the last of the era of pre-suburban England. The countryside around his home was still covered with cherry and apple orchards. The local milord still granted 'the living' to the local vicar and had always been the MP for the area in the certainty that all the locals would vote for him if they wanted to continue in work and live in their homes, which he owned. Lewis saw the first bulldozers begin to tear up the orchards to create what is now the unbroken suburban landscape of North London.
His marriage to a Sicilian girl continued the eccentric and colourful course of his life. His father-in-law had arrived in London after narrowly escaping being 'whacked' [as a de Niro character might now say] in New York. Ernestina clearly married Lewis as a tactic of rebellion against her father but Lewis formed a close bond with the family non the less and describes them with great affection and humour.
Come the war and Lewis is subject to all the seemingly inevitably preposterous and inane events that serving in Britain's armed services entailed. Why were many tons of freeze-proof margerine and thousands of snow shovels [without shafts] piled on a dockside in North Africa? How come his commanding officer spoke to foreigners in Latin? Why was this man in his post so long, before being removed from his office by a medic assisted by a rifleman, for taking the morning meeting dressed only in his Sam Browne and with his revolver on the desk?
Lewis ended the war in Naples and saw much harrowing poverty and misery. His book 'Naples '44' was the result.
His first marriage ended in typically Lewisian bizarre fashion in Guatemala, where his wife had lived for the war years.
He married again - we are never told his new wife's name - and he has three children. We are only told the name of two of them. They move for a period from rural Essex to a small village north of Rome, where they live in an abandoned convent, part of the palace of a charming, slightly faded Count. As ever with Lewis, colourful characters and events are described with his trademark limpidity of prose, such a pleasure to read.
So often, Brits return home from the continental adventure because of the problems associated with the education of their children. Lewis and his family return to rural Essex.
This book is a marvellous read. There is constant humour throughout - not jokes or jocularity in the prose but Lewis's precise focus and telling descriptions of the many very peculiar people he has come across and the many bizarre events in his life inevitably bring out the overwhelming absurdity of life.
BUT BEWARE! This book was first published in 1985 as "Jackdaw Cake". If, as I do, you already own that book, you will find it identical, word for word to the end of chapter 22. This book has had the final part, his life in Italy, tacked on to the end of the previous book. It should really have the same title as the earlier book because 337 of its 390 pages are the same. It is true that the blurb on the back cover does say "originally published in 1985 .." but not under this title. Fooled me. Naughty Picador - lose one star.