Nu­anced tale of fe­male dilem­mas

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - J David Si­mons Freight, £9.99 Re­view by Al­lan Hunter

IN THE post-truth era of al­ter­na­tive facts and fake news the very con­cept of in­tegrity seems charm­ingly old-fash­ioned. The de­sire to be true to your­self and to an un­shake­able set of val­ues lies at the heart of J David Si­mons’ pre­cisely crafted novel in which he del­i­cately plaits the for­tunes of two women. Si­lent screen star Ge­orgie Hep­burn re­fuses to sac­ri­fice her prin­ci­ples for the prom­ise of a glit­ter­ing Hol­ly­wood ca­reer and sub­se­quently flour­ishes as a pi­o­neer­ing wartime pi­lot and ad­mired pho­tog­ra­pher. Years after Ge­orgie’s death, fiftysome­thing film star Laura Scott is obliged to ques­tion her choices and de­sires as she at­tempts to rein­vent her­self as a stage per­former in a one-wo­man show on Ge­orgie’s life.

Si­mons lets these two lives un­fold in al­ter­nat­ing, bite-sized chap­ters that are as dainty as the cu­cum­ber sand­wiches served in a tra­di­tional after­noon tea. Equal weight is given to both women and the suc­ces­sion of cliffhanger end­ings has the feel of a daily se­rial. Ge­orgie is the more sub­stan­tial, ap­peal­ing fig­ure with a no­bler strug­gle in her ca­reer-killing re­fusal to suc­cumb to the casting couch blan­dish­ments of a big shot Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer. Her life spans the 20th cen­tury in a man­ner fa­mil­iar from such Wil­liam Boyd nov­els as Sweet Ca­ress and Any Hu­man Heart. It is filled with tragic love af­fairs, guilty se­crets, be­tray­als, grand ges­tures and the con­tra­dic­tions of some­one con­stantly rub­bing shoul­ders with the rich and fa­mous (Al­fred Hitch­cock, Amy John­son and John Wayne among oth­ers) and yet stead­fast in pro­tect­ing her own pri­vacy. Her story is told in ex­tracts from an un­pub­lished mem­oir and the tran­scripts of a rare Ra­dio 4 in­ter­view for the BBC recorded shortly be­fore her death.

Laura’s tra­vails seem more mun­dane as she finds her­self on the wrong side of 50 in a pro­fes­sion that still seems to value youth and beauty over age and ex­pe­ri­ence. Film roles are hard to find and her most re­cent em­ploy­ment was pro­vid­ing the voice of a crab in a Dis­ney an­i­mated fea­ture. Fi­nances are shaky, her on again, off again ro­mance with movie bad boy Jack Muir­head is un­cer­tain and the fu­ture is de­cid­edly cloudy un­til she starts to re­search her show on Ge­orgie. Laura’s story re­volves around a search for artis­tic in­tegrity and the price it ex­acts, even if that price is re­ject­ing an easy pay cheque with a sup­port­ing role in the un­likely all-star Hol­ly­wood epic The Bos­ton Tea Party.

Laura is en­gag­ing but less com­pelling. There seems to be much less at stake in her life and there are times when you grow im­pa­tient to race on and re­turn to the next in­stal­ment of Ge­orgie. Si­mons does man­age to bring the two lives closer to­gether, teas­ing out the par­al­lels be­tween the women and the un­ex­pected con­nec­tions that reach across the decades.

There is a great deal of dis­ci­pline and rigour in his writ­ing; no chap­ter is more than a few pages long, and yet he of­fers enough plot and emo­tional heft to move ev­ery­thing for­ward and con­trib­ute to a grow­ing sense of a big­ger pic­ture. His tech­nique ul­ti­mately pays div­i­dends as the twin sto­ries gather to­wards a res­o­lu­tion that is clev­erly han­dled and sat­is­fy­ing. A Wo­man Of In­tegrity is a very civilised, pleas­ingly un­sen­ti­men­tal novel in which Si­mons con­fi­dently as­sumes the man­tle of El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor in cre­at­ing nu­anced, soul-search­ing tales of women that are pro­pelled by moral dilem­mas and the strug­gle for sel­f­re­al­i­sa­tion.

A Wo­man Of In­tegrity namechecks the rich and fa­mous of movie-mak­ing in­clud­ing Al­fred Hitch­cock and John Wayne

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