When I came across this old VMC in a seaside second hand bookshop I pulled it out to look through it – never having heard of the author before. The lady serving in the shop noting my choice said ‘ooh I haven’t read Brigid Brophy for years’. Although the slightly bizarre cover art didn’t exactly speak to me – I bought the book. So often it is these random, spontaneous buys that turn out to be among our best acquisitions.
The King of a Rainy Country – was Brigid Brophy’s second novel. As the author explains in her afterword to this edition, the novel does have some autobiographical elements, especially in the characters of Neale and the first person narrator Susan. Brophy creates a fascinating world of both London Bohemianism and European glamour, suffused through with humour, depth and for me moments of poignancy. I absolutely loved it.
“O I’m so afraid that it’s true about to travel hopefully being better than to arrive. It might be all in the quest, all in the search, all in the anticipation. When it came, there might be nothing there.”
In this brilliantly stylish, witty novel Brigid Brophy introduces us to the world of two post war impoverished bohemians, Susan and Neale. As the novel opens Susan is moving in with Neale – although their relationship is somewhat ambiguous. On the day she moves Susan manages to secure a badly paying job, working for a definitely dodgy bookseller, coincidently in premises directly across the road from the flat she will be sharing with Neale. The proprietor Finkelheim is a distinctly odd man, his name an assumed one, it isn’t long before Susan discovers his chief trade is in pornography.
On days when Finkelheim is absent, Susan invites Neale over to spend time with her during the afternoons, the pair start examining some of the stock. Leafing through one of Finkelheim’s books Susan is taken aback to see a nude picture of Cynthia – a girl she had known at school, and for whom she’d had complicated feelings. Seeing the picture of Cynthia brings back memories of Susan’s adolescence at school and her all too brief friendship with Cynthia.
“The memory was quite sharp, but distant. It was like a small photograph in which, if I tried to enlarge it, the detail blurred outwards into nothing. The four of us were there in the sunlight, miniature figures in school blazers: myself a short compact child, with a fringe of dark hair across my forehead, large eyes and a tiny, very white-skinned nose; my satellite, Gill, a still smaller girl, monkey-like in her way of moving and her sense of humour; Annette, tall, thin, unsuitably named, colourless in hair, face and personality, who accompanied Cynthia everywhere; and Cynthia everywhere; and Cynthia herself.”
Neale is quick to embrace the mystery of what happened to Cynthia, where is she now and how did she end up in the pages of that book? Susan becomes determined to find Cynthia, her faltering investigations even taking her to visit her former headmistress. Susan and Neale decide to pursue their quest for Cynthia wherever it might take them. They discover that Cynthia is probably in Venice for a film festival, and so Susan and Neale feel they must follow her there.
Giving up the flat and leaving their belongings with a friend they manage to secure jobs as couriers to a coachload of American tourists journeying through Italy – a tour which will finish in Venice. First time couriers – the duo encounter difficult passengers, eccentric coach drivers and engine trouble as well as breath-taking scenery. There are lots of joyfully comic moments, including a passenger who will only sit in seat number 13 or sleep in room 13- so in one hotel the digits of room 31 have to be hastily reversed.
There is a definite shift in mood in this section, from the first part set in London, but for me that shift doesn’t in anyway jar or feel unnatural – which must say something I suppose for the skill of the writer. The tour ends in Venice, and Neale and Susan freed from their courier duties begin to look for Cynthia – and find her quickly and almost accidentally.
“Neale brushed Cynthia away. He talked with his head bent side sideways, watching Helena Buchan. In the darkness, her gaze apparently fixed on the table top while she listened, she was like the audience to a play we were giving in a small lighted circle. She was outside the arc. We could only project our words towards her, sensing her attentiveness from her silence and immobility; from the dimness there came to us now and then a rustle, occasionally the sound of a spoon against a cup, often a laugh – unexpected by us, because we could not see its preliminaries on her face.”
Having met up with Cynthia they are introduced to Helena Buchan a famous singer, and her friend Philip. Loves and loyalties between the group – who almost immediately start spending more and more time with each other – begin to shift and change. This third section of the novel is quieter, echoing with the ancient beauty of the city of Venice. There are lots of beautiful ambiguities in this novel, some surprises and an ending of quiet tragedy and absolute perfection.
I understand that The King of a Rainy Country was re-issued by The Coelacanth Press in 2012. Once the hoopla of Christmas is over – I will no doubt go in search of more Brigid Brophy novels – for now I’m not buying books (honest).