***SPOILER ALERT***I found Finest type of English womanhood by Rachel Heath a very odd read. Reviews of it had been extremely positive: The Guardian raved about it, citing its unerring sense of period, place and mood. While The Independent stated that "..the author is good at sex, writing well about female sensuality."
After reading the book I wouldn't rate either of the reviews that highly. Finest type is set just after the Second World War. Young Laura Trelling is swept off her feet by the South African, Paul Lovell, and emigrates back to his homeland. Meanwhile Gay Gibson, an aspiring actress, and good-time girl is also en-route to the Cape where the girls' paths are to cross. But on the way home Gibson's life is to come to a premature end.
Part fact, largely fiction, the novel is based on the "Porthole" murder case, for which James Camb was sentenced to death, only to be reprieved because of a brief change in the law. Yes, the book is suspenseful, and the South African background, the rise of a strict apartheid regime and the liberal and black opposition to it are well portrayed. As a "South African" novel it's excellent. As a crime novel it works less well. The victim is pre-ordained. You know from the moment you meet her who it's going to be. Even the murderer within the context of the novel is not unexpected.
But I take issue with The Independent's thoughts on the author's writing on female sensuality. I found it very clumsy. Laura Trelling appears to be auditioning for the part of Maggie the cat in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a hot tin roof. It doesn't feel real, everything is over the top and over-blown, while what appears to be Gay Gibson's attempted seduction of her left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Ironically Gay's feelings for Laura seems to be the one good and true thing about her, but Laura's motivation was strange - ultimately I wasn't sure if her dislike for Gay was triggered by Gay herself being a pretty unpleasant character, her seduction of Laura's husband, or if Laura was repulsed by Gay's lesbianism. The thought of Gay being killed because of her sexuality is something that I find completely repulsive, but it also seems wrong that the author may have skewed the story in that direction in order to give some sympathy to a generally unsympathetic character. It also seems to run completely counter to what is known factually about Gay herself.
Some of my feeling of discomfort was also because it was based on real people. I don't think that Heath had made any attempt to be true to those people. The other thing that was strange about the book was the way in which men are portrayed. No man was portrayed positively, all were to a greater or lesser extent predatory, egotistical, weak and cruel. It's a very bleak view of life.
As a snapshot of South African life on the verge of becoming an apartheid regime it's fascinating. As a view of the relationships between the sexes (or even, for that matter, the same sex).....well after reading this you would probably rather follow the lemmings than join a dating site.