This one was an interesting read. It’s a bit more adventurous that the last couple of Priestley’s I’ve read. Previous books have had little in the way of real conflict or danger, but this is more of a thriller and while I wouldn’t call the story edgy the protagonist is as at least in danger a large amount of the time.
But then it’s a very English kind of danger. There are various points where the characters are on the run and seemingly desperate to get somewhere before the antagonists catch up with them, but they still find time to stop at a nice hotel lunch and a relaxing smoke before carrying on.
Literally one of the plot points revolves around the fact that despite being on a strict time limit, and despite knowing their enemies are in the same town as them, two characters get separated because of of them wants to go out and buy tobacco before they have their coffee after dinner.
But the story is well put together and the writing excellent. It gets a little weird at the end. In the last few chapters the story, which until now was very much traditional spy thriller, suddenly takes on supernatural and spiritual elements. This is a weird shift in tone, and you quickly realise that Priestley’s using the story as a parable for the social politics in his age and his own politics. It’s not a bad ending. In fact I think it rather works. It’s just… slightly odd.
After the unfortunate ending on ‘Lost Empires’ I was wary of ‘Saturn Over The Water’, but while there are a few scenes with an unfortunate misogynistic tint this time we escape anything overtly offensive. Just be prepared for the fact that Priestley was a man of his time.
This is the second of J.B. Priestley’s novels I’ve read, and I am developing a definite love for his work.
Like The Good Companions – the previous Priestley novel I read – Lost Empires is a slice of life story set during the golden age of vaudeville and variety.The story is framed as the recollections of Richard Herncastle, an elderly painter, of the year he spent as the assistance and stage manager for his uncle, a successful magician on the variety circuit, before the outbreak of the Great War. The book read differently to more modern novels, and the plot isn’t set around some Big Adventure. The times and characters speak for themselves, portraying the tail ends of two worlds: The Golden Age of music hall variety, and English society before the destructive chaos of the War.
This isn’t to say that nothing happens, but rather that the event happen as they do in real life; as and when they come. Character come and go, in the way we expect in real life. Character grow no in sudden bursts of realisation and action, but over time and circumstances dictate.
But as much as you enjoy this beautiful written, soft depiction of a different time, when you reach the end you suddenly find yourself facing the sudden drop of “An Example Of It’s Time”. Throughout the book there are plenty of examples of what I came to think of as “patronising feminism”. Priestly clearly meant well, and was quite progressive for his time (Lost Empires was published in 1965). But that doesn’t free him from the prejudices of his time. You can’t say all his descriptions of women were complimentary, even if he meant them to be. We know better now. But while you can let these by, the ending is harder to swallow. The final climactic story consists of Richard and his uncle working to help a murderer flee the country because the girl he killed had been flirting with him for so long without any intention of sleeping with him that they don’t consider it fair for him to be arrested and executed for it, considering it the victims own fault that he snapped and killed her.
So yeah, there’s that to be aware of. But as long as you can put that aside – like I said, this needs to be put aside as “And Example Of Its Time” and that the author had no malicious feelings other than the standard unconscious prejudices of the society he lived in – then this is a wonderful novel to sit back and enjoy.