Toronto: Harlequin, 1974, c1957.
I've read a lot of Mary Burchell's Harlequin romances over the years. From my first introduction to her charming romances, But Not For Me (now a favourite) to the discovery of her quite astonishing life and her memoir We Followed Our Stars -- also republished as Safe Passage in 2008 --I've found her completely fascinating.
I just found out about this particular book recently, and though I don't review much of my genre reading, I wanted to share this one.
Published in 1957, it details the feelings arising in a young woman, Anya Beranova, as a result of being a Displaced Person after the war. As someone on Goodreads noted, there is not a lot of romance in this one; it feels like Burchell rolled one in so that Harlequin would publish it with her other work. The main love interest is a bit dreary, really, but Anya wants him, and that's all that really matters.
In its tone and its look at post-war politics and social gradations, I was reminded in some elusive way of Helen MacInnes, a mystery writer of the same era. I loved the way that Burchell's long established love of opera and theatre and performance also plays a role in this story, as Anya discovers a latent "small talent" that leads her to her family and her future.
The story runs thus: young Anya meets Englishman David Manworth by chance when he's holidaying in Bavaria. By a series of chance circumstances they meet a few times and develop a friendship. Then her father dies, after asking David to care for his young daughter...who is really the daughter of an Englishman.
Feeling in some way responsible for her, David and his party -- his Aunt, her friend and her daughter, plus David's cousin, take Anya back to England with them. Anya must there discover who she really is and what she really wants, all while dealing with the emotions arising from her rootlessness and lack of national identity, and her long history of powerlessness and insecurity in DP camps across Europe.
There are some reflections that are frighteningly current. With David in Bavaria there is a young woman, Celia, who is likely to marry him as their positions are similar and it would be convenient to them. She takes an instant dislike to Anya, which Anya sees, being so aware of her security in the world and how other people affect that. As Burchell writes,
Anya felt the chill of that stony dislike.A good question.
"And yet she has everything on her side," thought Anya wonderingly. "She is secure and happy and rich and beloved. Why should she hate and fear me, a stranger, with no country, no home, and even a father who is in doubt?"
Anya is shuffled around a bit, finds her hidden talent thanks to Cousin Bertram, a stage manager (and one of the most appealing characters in the book for me), discovers her true identity and gets her man in the end. But even as she's doing so she continues to hold her ambition to develop a career and to be self-sufficient and independent, and to hold her future in her own hands. I feel that if Burchell had been able to get away with not marrying her off in the end, she might have done so -- and the book would certainly have been more realistic and powerful that way.
I was really struck by the currency of the concept of this story, and by Burchell's compassion not for The Displaced as a generality, but the real interior life of one young girl caught up in the winds of war. It makes the setting and the social conditions of the DP camps much more emotionally resonant. Burchell's work during the war and her concern for those caught up in its aftermath both shine out in this book in a way I haven't seen from her before.
While it's a pretty slight romance with convoluted plotting for drama's sake, it's also a fascinating contemporary look at the very present reality of DPs, refugees and those fleeing conflict in whichever way they can. A timely read that still echoes today.