The Jewish Chronicle

Smartly smoothed wrinkles

- The Hopeful Traveller By Janina David EnvelopeBo­oks, £12.99 Reviewed by Madeleine Kingsley Madeleine Kingsley is a senior JC reviewer

TThese little gems of fiction have arrived after decades of going nowhere

HE HOPEFUL Traveller is an inspired title for the shortstory collection of Janina David, nonagenari­an Shoah survivor. In her long lifetime, she has journeyed far, from privileged prewar Poland, through the Warsaw ghetto and a convent hiding place, to post-war Paris, Australia and then to a new writing life in London where she’s freshly published at the age of 92.

David is best known for the threevolum­e autobiogra­phy (A Square of Sky, A Touch of Earth and Light Over the Water) that chronicles her wartime ordeal (and the loss of her parents) with a deft but never darkly despondent child’s-eye view. Yet squirrelle­d away for more than 40 years were her jewelled stories, now brought from dusty typed manuscript to a book as beguiling inside as its vintage airmail cover. They tell of women no longer young, yet still hungry, mainly for adventures abroad and for demonstrat­ions of love, be it from a mysterious young man in Paris, a fellow traveller in Samarkand or a substitute chauffeur with a penchant for pearls and picnics.

Angela, in Trees, revisits the Polish countrysid­e of her mother’s carefree girlhood and finds it “dangerousl­y dilapidate­d”, encircled by great trees, their voices “singing and murmuring, like a chorus chanting and weaving spells.” Her new relatives have little, and ask little, only that one of them, Dorota, visit London to see Madame Tussauds, to work and save enough money to rescue the antiquated ruin that is their ancestral home. But affluent Uncle Charles in London won’t put the cousin up.

Then Angela, passing through on her continenta­l tour, intercedes on Dorota’s behalf. Charles is wrapped up in his little drawing-room forest of bonsai, trimmed and manicured to within a millimetre of their potted artifice.

On the Terrace introduces three women friends, two of them “decrepit old wrinklies” catching up after many years apart. Decades before Sex and the City was even a glint in Samantha’s libidinous eye, Janina David delivers up the third friend, Sylvana, as a fully fledged Cougar, all leather and glitz, trumpeting her very young conquest. Nothing is what it seems in David’s narrative, so Sylvana is forced to abandon her Mazagran coffee and flee the terrace, blowing air kisses as she runs.

David writes as if by sideways glance, subtle insinuatio­n and a tart dash of sherbert lemon. Her midlife women think they are savvy and fit for far-flung exotic trips. Yet, in a time just before popular feminism, they expect too much of men, too little perhaps of themselves. In The Heat of the Sun has Rose, returning to her native Melbourne after many years, believing that old friend Bill will romance her over veal valdostana — today’s traveller would spot a bi-polar case a mile off and stave off boiled lobster sunburn with factor 50.

Young Alice, ingenue of Sauce for the Goose, takes inordinate­ly long to clock the menage-a-many that her aunts provide for charming Uncle Paul in the French paysage. In the title story, Renata drives miles to the Paris funeral of her sister Florence’s much older husband, an esteemed scholar of fourth- century Rome. Florence has lived for years as his unwillingl­y “devoted slave”. Both sisters now cherish unspoken dreams of the wealth and foreign travel his death may liberate. But the last laugh and the last will and testament are up for grabs — who will really profit from a broken oath, a car crash and a malign pet cat, Libanius? Many of these stories might be described as near-romances. But the real story behind the stories is the true romance — these little gems of fiction reaching their bookshop destinatio­n after decades of going nowhere. Who says it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive?

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