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The Flight of the Maidens    by Jane Gardam order for
Flight of the Maidens
by Jane Gardam
Order:  USA  Can
Quality Paperbacks, 2001 (2000)
Hardcover, Softcover
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This is a tale of three maidens ... Hetty, Una and Lieselotte coming of age and finding their wings in the post-war summer of 1946 England. Hetty and Una are old friends beginning to drift apart and Lieselotte has been admitted to the edges of their circle as a consequence of all three winning State scholarships to university. The story starts 'Three girls in a graveyard', which is typical of the author's sparse and poetic style and happens to be where the maidens hang out to study.

The characters and backgrounds of the three are revealed gradually through the story and pull in the reader more and more, especially Lieselotte who is at first dull and uninteresting but later assumes center stage. All come from families scarred by the war. Hetty's dad came back 'shattered to bits in mind' after four years in the trenches and is now a grave-digger by profession. Hetty's mother smothers her. Una's doctor father, suffering from 'The Somme' threw himself off a cliff when she was nine. And Lieselotte's parents died in Auschwitz though she doesn't (quite) know it yet.

Gardam's writing reminded me most of the wonderful speculative fiction author Ursula Le Guin. They both hook the reader with interesting characters and settings, but in a low key fashion at first. Then they reel us in by revealing more and more intriguing aspects and secrets. I could have put this book down again at the beginning but was glued to its pages very soon afterwards.

The maidens of the story take flight from different settings. Hetty must escape her mother's absolute presence in her life. Una has embarked on her first love and Lieselotte must accept and come to terms with her family's fate. The understated way in which all three stories are presented makes them more powerful. Though World War 2 looms behind them, these are also the universal stories of young women finding their own identities as they emerge from their parents' shadows.

It is a well done period piece but this is not only for people interested in the 40's, the issues are timeless. We can all relate to Una and Ray's fumbling attempts to get together and the political argument they have instead - 'I thought it would be something wonderful, and all I get is the blame for Hiroshima'. Hetty's ambivalence and occasional cruelty towards her mother is typical behavior for an adolescent girl. And Lieselotte's reaction to the tragedy in her past is a credible portrayal that creates a strong empathy with the reader.

The Flight of the Maidens is a wonderful, engaging book about real women in a fascinating era. It is poetic, witty and compassionate. When all three heroines find their wings in London, the reader is there too cheering them on.

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