About the Book
I used to believe the world had been created for me; every stone and grain of sand. As I grew older, I began to think of myself as something tacked on to the edge.
1939, London: From McPhail’s Passage to Kensington’s Grand Palace Hotel, Rose Dunbar is evacuated from her humble home on the Rock of Gibraltar and dropped into a chaotic city of falling bombs, perplexing class rules and bad weather. Despite being ‘flagrantly foreign’ to the locals, she becomes an efficient go-between for the upper-class ladies helping out with the war effort and her own tribe of noisy displaced families.
It is only when she is shifted to the countryside to become secretary to the plain-speaking and sightless Major Inchbold that Rose’s dizzying journey to womanhood will become more surreal than ever, as she drinks tea at the vicarage, shields her best friend from abuse and stands up for the lower orders. But Rose’s greatest dilemma is yet to come, as she must decide where her home – and her heart – really lies.
Format: eARC (368 pages) Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: 23rd March 2023 Genre: Historical Fiction
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I’ve enjoyed both of Anne Youngson’s previous two books – Meet Me at the Museum and Three Women and a Boat (now titled The Narrowboat Summer) – and I was pleased to have the opportunity to exchange a few words with her and have her sign my copy of Meet Me at the Museum at Henley Literary Festival in 2018 when she appeared alongside A. J. Pearce, author of Dear Mrs. Bird.
A Complicated Matter is quite different in style and subject matter from Three Women and a Boat, as well as not being set in the present day but during and after the Second World War. However I did find echoes of Meet Me at the Museum in the parts of the book that explore feelings of isolation and finding yourself living a life different from that you’d imagined.
I admit I knew nothing about the evacuation from Gibraltar during the war of those referred to as ‘useless mouths’, i.e. those not required for the defence of the island. This evacuation – of mostly women and children – is the ‘complicated matter’ of the title. Initially, transported to Morocco, Rose and members of her family find themselves separated from loved ones and experiencing the hostility that refugees often face. At one point there is even a plan to evacuate them to Jamaica; Rose aptly remarks ‘as if they’re a parcel’.
When they are moved to London they experience the terror of the Blitz alongside other Londoners. But of course they’re not like other Londoners; they have been placed in an entirely alien environment. Rose’s friend Sonia, working as governess to a family, expresses the feeling of dislocation well when she writes, ‘Isn’t it hard being here instead of at home, speaking English all the time, but never feeling English? Not being able to to see the sea? Being surrounded by greenery instead of by rock. Not knowing what is going to happen to us next?’ Rose struggles to find a useful role for herself, besides caring for her disabled mother, although actually she is more useful than she gives herself credit for.
The book is structured as Rose’s story, written by herself, for the consumption of a person who is not identified until near the end of the book. Slightly confusingly this person is referred to in the third person until such time as their identity becomes clear. The most absorbing part of the book for me was the final section in which Rose takes up a position as secretary to Major Inchbold. I thought it was clever of the author to make Major Inchbold blind as it means he can’t judge Rose on the basis of what she looks like or what she wears, but only what she says and does, how she interacts with other people. There is a moment when Rose enables Major Inchbold to sense her appearance that I found mildly erotic. Major Inchbold’s moments of anger, borne out of frustration more than anything else, are also a neat echo of Rose’s mother’s often spiky personality.
I admired the insightful way the author explored Rose’s situation and that of anyone who finds themselves uprooted from the surroundings they have known and I found the ending rather moving.
A Complicated Matter is a gently paced novel about displacement, identity and finding your place in the world.
I received an advance review copy courtesy of Doubleday via NetGalley.
In three words: Insightful, tender, absorbing
About the Author
Anne Youngson is the author of the Costa First Book Award-shortlisted Meet Me at the Museum; BBC Radio Book Club pick, Three Women and a Boat and the story collection, The Six Who Came to Dinner. Anne Youngson’s shrewd, warm-hearted and observational prose has been widely praised. Her new novel, A Complicated Matter explores the human heart through the coming-of-age of a young English refugee during the blitz. Anne’s work is published around the world. She lives in Oxfordshire with her husband and has three grandchildren. (Photo: Goodreads author page)
2 thoughts on “#BookReview #Ad A Complicated Matter by Anne Youngson”
Excellent review, Cathy. Forced migration is something I have read about over the years and always find it interesting. This reminds me of the internment camps in the US and Canada during WWII. I will watch for this one.
This sounds quite intriguing. Our library’s got it on order. I think I’ll look out for it.