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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Alice Kerby’

I don’t generally indulge in fictional fantasy or whimsy, I tend to need my fiction to be firmly rooted in the possible, even if the possible is cosy and unlikely. Miss Carter and the Ifrit is a novel which I already knew would make me suspend my disbelief, in the same way I did when reading novels like The Love Child, Miss Hargreaves and of course Lolly Willowes. I mention those novels because the fantasy element in this one is of the same type, existing lightly within a very realistic world – in this case London in WW2.

“To look at Miss Georgina Carter you would never have suspected that a woman of her age and character would have allowed herself to be so wholeheartedly mixed up with an Ifrit.”

Miss Georgina Carter is a woman in her late forties – she lives alone in a small London flat and works in the censorship office. Her life is one of fairly dull, predictable routine, she feels like she has rather missed out on life, nothing of any interest could possibly happen to her now, she believes. This is London of the later war years, people are tired, there are bombed out buildings all over the city, food shortages have become gruelling. It’s ages since Georgina has heard from her brother Robert or nephew Henry, and she can’t help but feel rather old.

When Georgina buys some blocks of wood for her fire that have come from a blitzed roadway, she can have no idea what adventures will result. With a new biography of Lady Hester Stanhope to read, she is looking forward to a cosy evening by a good fire. Throwing one of the blocks onto the fire later she is more than a little surprised to find that the acting of burning releases a very long-imprisoned Ifrit (similar it seems to a genie). His name is Abu Shiháb, and he declares himself to be Miss Carter’s slave – a word Georgina passionately objects to, but he is childishly excited to do all he can for her, joyfully producing dishes of food for her, not seen in London in years. His joy in serving is quite irrepressible and while she doesn’t really believe that any of it is real, Georgina enjoys an evening in the company of Abu Shiháb and everything he is able to bestow on her. Assuming it all to be a dream she is astounded to find him waiting for her in the living room the next morning (when not wanted he disappears into a small bottle on the mantlepiece or makes himself invisible).

“Well, perhaps this was all a dream. Perhaps she was insane. Perhaps even she was dead and wandering in that strange limbo of those half-forgotten things that one had always desired and never achieved. But—and she made up her mind suddenly and firmly—but this present situation she would accept … and enjoy it, as far as possible. That was perhaps not sensible, but sense be hanged, it was at least interesting!”

Once she is convinced that her Ifrit is a permanent fixture, Georgina bestows the name Joe Carter on her new friend, Joe is deeply honoured to be sharing in her family name. Joe is keen to help Georgina in every way he can, and he suggests spiriting her away to wherever she wants to go – he can take her anywhere. Her first magical outing is just to Brighton, where she meets an old friend; Richard a Major who had previously been living in America. Joe is a hopeless romantic and in Richard he sees lots of possibilities for Miss Carter. There’s a wonderful evening out, a beautiful new outfit provided by Joe for the occasion, and Miss Carter’s head is in a whirl. Meeting up with Richard again has taken Georgina right back to her youth, she can’t help but start to daydream a bit, especially when encouraged by Joe. When Richard is posted to Africa, Joe disappears off to provide regular updates, and when he is taken ill, suggests a little trip. With Joe around, a flying visit to an army hospital in Africa is no problem, neither would be a visit to her beloved nephew Henry in Canada.

With her life so full and unusual it’s no wonder that Georgina’s good friend Margaret notices her friend is behaving a little strangely. Margaret works with Georgina at the censorship office, and they usually enjoy tea together on a Sunday afternoon. Margaret thinks she knows Georgina well, and she begins to worry that her old friend might even have turned to drink, there’s some amusing misunderstandings between the two old friends, as Georgina desperately tries to shield Margaret from the truth. It becomes harder for Georgina to hide her secret – and she starts to wonder whether, keeping Joe all to herself isn’t just a little bit selfish.

Miss Carter and the Ifrit is a delicious little bit of whimsy from Dean Street Press. The relationship between Miss Carter and Joe is wonderfully observed, as we watch Joe grow from a kind of simple childishness to a rounder more mature individual as in Miss Carter’s company, he learns about this strange new world he finds himself in.

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