When starting a review I think carefully about the opening sentence. I want to write something that will grab the reader's attention, will be witty, wise, amusing, smart, erudite ...yes, well gave up on that one and just as well as the only opening line I an think of relevant to this latest read is:
I loved this book.
There you have it. Perfect opening line. And it is true. I simply loved reading the Great Western Beach . Emma Smith's award winning novel, the Far Cry, was republished by Persephone a few years ago and I read it then with great enjoyment, not least for the fine writing, not a dot or comma or excessive adjective anywhere, just a clear flowing narrative.
In this book Emma Smith recalls her childhood spent in Newquay between the two World Wars. She and her three siblings and their totally mismatched and unhappy parents live in straightened circumstances which her father, in particular, loathes. A hero in the first World War, decorated for bravery and awarded the DSO, he cannot come to terms with his mundane existence and is prone to violent rages and cruelty towards his family. Emma is his favourite because, as she freely admits, she keeps quiet out of sheer self preservation and does not argue with him. Though he is not a lovable person she feels shame that she does not love her father, but she certainly seems to understand him and the frustration and inner rage that eats him up. One evening he takes her down to the beach to watch a violent storm:
"My father stood wordless, perfectly still, holding my hand and gazing out across the surging, heaving, tossing savage ocean, smiling dreamily almost as though mesmerised by the storminess of the scene confronting him. I knew how he felt. His mood was peaceful because, for a short while, here and now there was no need to be angry. The violence of the wind and waves was expressing on his behalf, more vividly than he ever could, the rage that had to be kept bottled up inside him"
Such insight and understanding makes us feel far more sympathetic towards him than he deserves, as he sounds a pretty rotten person to live with, is petty and cruel towards his wife, terrorizes his quiet, nervous son who he despises and reduces his wife to frequent tears.
"Oh my parents, my poor tragic parents, my good and beautiful, brave, dramatic, unperceptive mother, my disappointed, embittered, lonely talented father, locked both of them inside a prison they had not deserved, for reasons they did not understand, by conventions they took to be immutable laws..."
Emma's mother receives an inheritance from an uncle and financially life improves with a move to a bigger house and membership of the tennis club and society in general which was barred to the family when lacking in funds and life broadens and becomes more satisfying. The varied and many eccentric characters living in Newquay are portrayed with great warmth and charm and, despite the unhappiness of her parents, Emma at least, has memories of a wonderful childhood by the sea and writes of it with great happiness. Anybody who reads this book who has run shivering from a swim in British waters and rushed back to their mother to be wrapped up in a towel, given a sandwich, a boiled egg, a Fyffes banana (it was always a Fyffes when I was a child) and a plastic cup of warm milky tea from a giant thermos, and to feel the exhilarated flow of warmth which follows a bracing dip, will understand exactly why I enjoyed this book so much.
When Emma and her family eventually move to Plymouth, as her father has been promoted from his rather lowly bank clerk position, she realises what she is losing and is bereft:
"How can I express in words the immensity of the loss I have begun to realise is mine?...the sea, the sea, most of all I shall miss the sea. Goodbye my childhood"
I shall end as I started. I loved this book.