As you can see from the book cover above Edith Pargeter also wrote as Ellis Peters, creator of Cadfael and one of my favourite families in crime, the Felses.
Which is probably one reason I read the first few chapters of Lost Children thinking that a nice murder would liven things up enormously.
The other reason was the flowery descriptions. Pargeter builds the atmosphere of the folly, the dead and gone Rose family, the weight of history and stagnation, far beyond what can be needed. Rosalba, the orphaned, isolated and half-frozen niece, whose aunt will never forgive her for having a more common mother, is clearly Rapunzel or some other captive princess. Her aunt, despite the many paragraphs showing why she is like she is, is still clearly a wicked witch.
Unfortunately, while the wicked witch becomes more real as a person when we can see why she is as she is, Rosalba’s youth and beauty – which we hear about again and again – make it harder and harder to empathise. Not precisely because she is beautiful, but because the reader is constantly reminded of it, like it’s an alien quality, like Mr Spock’s brain. Although she acts, thinks, feels, she can never quite be a living human being while she’s being endlessly compared to a flower.
Luckily the reader isn't dependent on Rosalba and her delicate and innocent romance with a soldier of her own age to enjoy the book. Just as the fairy tale gets too much we switch tracks to something a bit more earthy in the downright Flo, who lives crowded in with her sister and brother and Dad, waiting for the council to replace the homes the German bombers knocked down, and then again to an American soldier who apparently thinks in clichés.
‘Gee, the breaks I get..’ He says, when a frightened 14 year old camp follower (Flo’s younger sister) trips over him in the dark, fleeing because she got out of her depth with one of his compatriots. And so he tells her to be a good girl and sends her home on the bus, and meets Rosalba and her young man in the process.
This is where the book starts to breathe and we have Pargeter doing what she does best, taking these different worlds and plausibly weaving them together. We have the locals, simultaneously resentful and patriotically welcoming of the American army, worried about their daughters hanging about outside the camp, we have Flo trying to run her father’s home and watching out for Rosalba because she can see her aunt won’t do anything more useful than condemn, and then we have the throwing of everyone into even closer proximity as.. well, I won’t spoil it. Suffice to say that a lot of the conversation, and internal dialogue, is about the madness of splitting men from their families and training them to kill when everyone wants peace, and the stupidity of authority that insists on asserting itself even if that means acting in a way that makes no sense.
Sometimes this feels – even if you agree with it – like every important character is saying exactly the same thing in different ways, but perhaps that’s not fair. Perhaps it’s a true indication of how many people were feeling by 1951. Not proud and patriotic but simply weary, with no appetite left for another fight, and no feeling of unity with the people in charge who were still hedging their bets it might happen.