TOP 100 REVIEWERon 21 August 2013
Emma Smith, born Elspeth Hallsmith in 1923, is a novelist of both adult and children's fiction, and in this engaging memoir 'As Green As Grass' she shares with the reader details of her life beginning as a schoolgirl in the mid 1930s, up until her marriage in 1951.
Divided into three sections, the first part of the book begins with the Hallsmith family's removal from Emma's much-loved seaside home in Newquay, to Crapstone, in Plymouth, a village on the edge of Dartmoor, when her father is transferred by the bank which employs him. Emma's father, a war hero from the Great War, is a difficult and bitter man, whose ambition to become an artist was thwarted by the outbreak of war and whose mood swings and unpredictable behaviour worsen over the years, making life very difficult for the whole family, but particularly for Emma's long-suffering mother. Eventually Emma's father has a total breakdown, tries to strangle his wife and after the verdict of two doctors: "Daddy, they agreed, has completely gone off his head, and he must therefore be put into a lunatic asylum." Emma, expecting her mother to collapse with the shock of her husband's breakdown, is surprised by her mother's transformation now that she is no longer held back by her bullish husband: "In twenty four hours she has reverted miraculously to the person who once, during that far-off period of the Great War, was not just able to drive an ambulance, but was Commandant, no less, of King Edward's Convalescent Hospital for wounded soldiers..."
The second part of the book takes us into the years of the Second World War, where Emma starts secretarial training at Queen's Secretarial College in Clarence Lodge, and by 1942, at the age of eighteen, Emma is a qualified secretary, living in Oxford and working at Blenheim Palace for MI5. However, secretarial work is not exciting enough for Emma and, feeling that she should do something more to contribute to the war effort, she applies for a job on the canals where she ferries vital cargoes for the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company. Working on the canal boats, Emma meets other young women from a variety of different backgrounds and although the work is physically exhausting, Emma's life is transformed. After the war, in part three of the book, Emma's life changes again as she works for a documentary film maker, travels to India to make a documentary film with Laurie Lee, lives in bohemian Chelsea, falls in love and out of love, spends time in Paris where she tries to mend a broken heart writing a novel, and is photographed by the legendary photographer, Robert Doisneau.
This is a very engaging memoir, told with enthusiasm, energy and honesty and, as it is written in the present tense, the reader almost feels as if they are experiencing Emma's life alongside her. Warm, evocative, friendly and very readable, this entertainingly told story (with its very poignant Afterword) is one to keep on the bookshelf to enjoy again and also one to share with family and friends.