I have recently enthused about my love of Virago books, especially when they come in an original shade of dark green – such is the collector’s obsession. Therefore it seemed fitting that the first book I read after the month of re-reading –when I could select from my teetering TBR – should be a Virago. This particular book was sent to me by Dee from the Libraything Virago group, as part of my lovely secret Santa Parcel. I have been so looking forward to reading it, and I haven’t at all been disappointed. Peking Picnic is a wonderful novel. Thank you Dee.
I have been reading this novel rather slowly – certainly the first half of it I did – due to having slept rather badly a couple of times last week – very out of character – which left me very tired. I found myself having to read whole paragraphs and pages over and over – as my poor tired brain found working out who was who a bit tricky at first. Strangely however I was glad that I had to read it slowly because the writing is so beautiful, just as with Illyrian Spring which I read last year – there is a wonderful sense of place which Ann Bridge has created.
“sitting back in her chair under an oleander, for a moment alone, what she saw with great clearness was a green field bordered with youthful Scots pines, on which small white figures ran about with happy cries. She heard the sound of wood on leather and leather on wood, and treble voices crying “how’s that?” and hurrahing eagerly if thinly.”
As conflict threatens between local warlords, Laura Leroy – an ambassadorial wife at the very heart of the British Legation at Peking, quietly misses her children and dreams of Oxford. Mrs Leroy is very much admired and respected in this diplomatic community. A host of interesting and diverse characters surround Laura Leroy as the novel opens; including Major La Touche – called Touchy by everyone, Laura’s friend Nina Nevile, Nina’s niece Little Annette, and Laura’s own nieces Lilah and Judith, Miss Hande an American novelist and various diplomatic staff such as Derek Fitzmaurice. Into this group comes Professor Vinstead a Cambridge academic of psychology, for who the idea of a Peking Picnic as a kind of welcome is conceived. This picnic is not the Sunday afternoon outing that we may think of when we see the word, but more of a camping expedition taking a couple of days, to see the great temple of Chieh T’ai Ssu .
As the trip gets underway friendships and romances blossom, Laura is called upon to offer advice and quiet good sense to the fledgling lovers, while, surprisingly finding herself not entirely unmoved by the lonely Professor. Things take an unexpected and dramatic turn however when the party are taken hostage by a group of dishevelled bandits.
This is exactly the kind of novel I love. A quiet intelligent novel, peopled with memorable and interesting characters. I have already said that the writing is beautiful – and it is – and good writing cannot be beaten. However there were even some moments which are also very funny. When Hubbard – Laura’s odd little maid suddenly appears in the middle of the captors – declaring she hadn’t been captured but had walked in –bearing dozens of cheap cigarettes for Laura and her friends – it is a delight.
Throughout the novel Ann Bridge uses repeated lines to poetry quoted and thought about by Laura and Vinstead particularly– such as: “come you not, a careless stranger, Him with reckless words to waken” which somehow bring a touching poignancy to the scene described.
This wonderful novel really will live in my mind for a while.