GOOD EVENING MRS CRAVEN by Mollie Panter-Downes is a series of wartime stories set in Britain during the Second World War. Like most British people, Ms. Panter-Downes writes fluently and well, and renders the ordinary world in closely observed snapshots. For example:
Everyone got wedged into the room somehow, bibs were hitched round necks, and a subterranean wheezing located Mrs. Parmenter’s little fellows right under their patron’s chair. Mrs. Ramsay, carving the lamb and listening to the nurses babbling of cardigan patterns, thought moodily that this kind of thing might go on for years.
Ms. Panter-Downes’ stories become darker as the war grinds on. GOODBYE MY LOVE is about the touching parting of a young man and a young woman. When the young man unexpectedly reappears, she bursts into floods of tears, because she will have to say ‘goodbye’ to him all over again. GOOD EVENING MRS. CRAVEN is about the heartbreak of being the ‘other woman’ when your man has gone off to war. Your man is not actually your man, and another woman is his wife, and the relationship is secret (or supposed to be so), getting any news is almost impossible. Unless you resort to subterfuge. THE HUNGER OF MISS BURTON tackles an issue that would have been all-too-familiar to the people who survived through that war. Miss Burton is adult and female, and as such is supposed not to take more than her fair share, leaving the leftovers for the children. But she is so hungry! IT’S THE REACTION is perhaps the saddest story of all, about another adult single female, who yearns for another bomb to drop so that her neighbors will come out of their shells and include her in their lives. Without a crisis, her life is so, so, heartbreakingly, lonely.
There is triviality mixed in with tragedy, pettiness with kindness and the usual day-to-day problems wound together with the reality of war. If you want to know more about the war, and what life was like, these stories provide a good introduction. But you won’t learn much about the characters who inhabit these stories. Though well-defined, they remain largely private. (How English.) Four stars.