Daughter on the stage

A SPOONFUL OF JAM. By Michelle Magorian. Mammoth Pounds 4.99

On one level this is a sort of post-war British fairy tale - poor girl with mousey hair and the wrong accent lands lead part in repertory play in a bid to ward off bullies. But that's as close to Cinderella as Elsie Hollis gets.

The author has a wonderful gift for hanging a richly woven tapestry around an essentially simple frame, and A Spoonful of Jam is every bit as compelling as her award-winning forerunner Goodnight Mister Tom, which was recently adapted for television.

Her latest novel, which moves on from wartime to post-war Britain, is the story of Elsie, a 12-year-old member of the large, extended, working-class but out-of-the-ordinary Hollis family who are coming to terms with the end of war.

A demobbed father is causing some painful family re-adjustment. Then there's brother Ralph, who has his own thespian ambitions; brother Harry, suffering initiation into working life; mother coping with pregnancy; and Elsie trying to hold her own at grammar school and fight off the neighbourhood mob. These are fulsome characters to cherish, whose storylines resonate and interweave to create an emotional roller-coaster of a novel. There are moments of high comedy amid darker passages of grief and torment.

Magorian's social observation, never simply didactic but always there to serve the narrative, throws up delicious personalities such as the uppity but soft-hearted Miss Benson, Elsie's chaperone during her theatrical career, and tragic, complex characters such as schoolfriend Geraldine (a victim of abuse) and bully Marjorie Bush. Magorian's evocation of Elsie's deep-seated terror of her attackers is gripping and provocative.

A meaty and powerful read.

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