a wartime tale for modern times
Bombweed, by Gillian Fernandez Morton, is an absorbing story set against the backdrop of World War Two and seen through the eyes of Vivienne, one of three sisters growing up in wartime Portsmouth. The novel is, in fact, an edited version of a manuscript written by Gillian’s late mother, Margaret Smith, who was clear that it was not an autobiography, but an amalgam of events that happened to real people.
The novel was never published in Smith’s lifetime and was found on top of the wardrobe by her daughters after her death. They carefully and lovingly edited her work, and it was finally published for the world to read and enjoy. I think they have done justice to their mother’s writing and produced a well-paced, interesting story with fleshed-out characters who provide considerable insight into the lives of ordinary people living through extraordinary times.
The enigmatic Bombweed refers to the pink Rosebay Willowherb which flourished amongst bombsites in WW2. As a Pompey girl, I remember playing on the city’s remaining bombed-out wastelands during my childhood in the 1960s, so this novel holds a particular nostalgic appeal for me.
A country at war
Morton has crafted an intimate portrait of everyday life during a frightening and traumatic time. The shock and sadness of unexpected civilian deaths, including the sisters’ mother and Vivienne’s husband, John, are portrayed in devasting detail. Fear and trauma juxtapose daily anxieties, discomfort, and inconvenience giving a realistic flavour of what life was like during wartime Britain:
'So Kathy has to be picked up and carried into every shop.’ The worse time, she said, was when she’d had to sit in a shop basement for an hour or more one afternoon facing shelves of wine bottles not a foot from her face, with Kathy crying to be fed – too embarrassed and afraid to begin, imagining her face and her baby daughter scared by exploding glass (p.84).
Everyday details of local life pertinent to wartime Portsmouth, a city by the sea, are vividly described, giving a sense of freedoms lost and day-to-day personal sacrifice at civilian level:
One day, soldiers closed off the sea front to everyone except householders living on the parade himself. Those families were given special passes and it was clear that on the beaches, the army was now in charge (p.84).
Pastoral threads: city versus country life
Bombweed provides a fascinating snapshot of what it was like to live in different parts of Britain during the war. As in the author’s second novel, Kissed to Death (Silverwood, 2021), which I reviewed on this blog site, physical travel is part of an emotional journey through the loss and grief that war brings. All three sisters travel away from Portsmouth, and I enjoyed learning of their new experiences and responses in epistolary form which creates realism and frames a sense of time and place. When cousin Martin’s ‘lawful wedded’, Biddy, is evacuated with her little daughter, Kathy, she has no idea of where she is going and relates the practical details of her train journey:
I don’t know if you realise but they’ve taken away all the station names. Once when we stopped at a level crossing there was a signpost quite near, but painted out (p.88).
The emotional impact of evacuation is portrayed in tender and moving human terms:
Where to begin? But first I must tell you how dreadful I felt leaving you and the family after everything. Well, you know what I mean. All of you coping so brilliantly but hearts breaking (p.87).
A female-centric perspective
I appreciated that Bombweed is narrated from a woman’s viewpoint, particularly as war stories are often told from a male perspective. Indeed, the novel seems ahead of its time in terms of attitudes expressed and I wonder whether this is due to the length of time between the original draft and the much later editing and publication. Editing with historical distance and fresh eyes has, I would argue, given Bombweed an extra layer of meaning and richness, making it more accessible and relevant to a contemporary reader.
As she matures and moves through her journey, Vivienne begins to challenge the status quo of women’s conventional behaviour and the novel charts changing expectations, as familial and social constructions are questioned and challenged:
I thought it a shame that human females couldn’t always enjoy motherhood, smiling to myself, thinking how dog law did not require obligatory husbands. Gracie could cope with her babies on her own perfectly well. Nobody criticised Gracie for not having a father around (p.255).
Changing times for women
Vivienne, the grieving widow, is judged for having sexual needs and acting on her desires, as are Audrey and Caroline. Controversial, stigmatised issues of the day are aired and open for discussion, as characters discuss miscarriage, abortion, sex outside of marriage, and divorce. By the end of the novel, there is perhaps a ray of light regarding changing perspectives and a nod towards the ongoing emancipation of women:
And while Kenneth was hanging on to things from the past, you Vivienne, tried one thing after another, didn't you, including a dishy Yank and a horny son of the soil! But look at us both now. Independence, salary, homes, travel. No complications. Is it enough? Are we allowed to want more, do you think? (p.306).
Imagery of The Snow Queen
The novel reflects Gillian Fernandez Morton’s significant background in educational psychotherapy and her interest in using stories as a tool to help children come to terms with trauma and loss. ‘The Snow Queen’ analogy, also present in Kissed to Death, threads through Bombweed, as Vivienne moves from the constrictions of pent-up grief through to greater self-awareness and emotional freedom:
Now she is finding herself trying to rearrange these fragments in some order that will make sense. Things can seem so different at times. She had tried so hard to feel that she was all right; tried not to let grief paralyse her. She can feel like the boy in the Snow Queen story. The deceptive piece of mirror glass in his eye lied to him about the world. The sliver of ice in his heart told him he was warm and safe (p.300).
Dealing with grief and loss
The difference between the way sisters Vivienne, Julia and Audrey deal with death is explored. Julia indulges her secret love for Kenneth by hanging onto him (or her version of him), obsessively collecting his letters and photos. Audrey tries to totally negate Kenneth, missing presumed dead, destroying all evidence of their marriage and his very existence, whilst Vivienne is scared to hold onto her good memories of John. She tries to blot them out through hard physical farm work and affairs with the equally lonely, kind Mart and cold, critical Dan.
And after a struggle that caught my breath, I spoke about John. How Audrey and I had both fought in our different ways against the kind of excruciating loss that Julia had never known – a real live husband, not just a fantasy (p.281).
Again, childhood literary figures help to chart Vivienne’s journey from the shock of John’s death, and almost denial of the love they shared, through to acceptance and understanding of past and present. Nursery rhyme and fairy tale imagery gives the novel a richness of language and heightened perception of both the pain and pleasure of love and death, that is part and parcel of human experience:
Sometimes she tries too hard to hold onto his image and he disappears like Alice’s Cheshire cat, and the loss makes her weep. And at times she falters, depressed, hearing the cynical voice of Daniel Morgan, scathing but persuasive like Red Riding Hood’s wolf in her ears. Yet after these walks in the park, and the sitting in cafes over the last weeks since her father’s death, she has begun to feel lighter, refreshed. She can remember some of the old pleasures John and she had shared (p.300).
I thoroughly enjoyed Bombweed and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys an absorbing story, a family saga, and a wartime setting. It is particularly relevant following a pandemic, an era of lockdowns, personal restrictions, and rapid social, economic, and political change. I plan to hand a copy to my Mum, a Portsmouth wartime baby, who also played amongst bombsites overgrown with willowherb. I think she will enjoy the nostalgic sentiment of the novel and a journey back in time. In the meantime, I eagerly look forward to reading Gillian Fernandez Morton’s third novel – please!
Tina MacNaughton was born and brought up in Portsmouth, a city that means a great deal to her. She now divides her time between Crowthorne, Berkshire, where she works as an acupuncturist, and her seaside flat in Southsea, where she walks, goes to the beach, and writes poetry. She belongs to the Portsmouth Writer’s Hub and Words Out Loud based in Chichester. Her frank poems about menopause and women’s issues have resonated with many readers. A fine collection of Tina’s poetry On the Shoulders of Lions was published by The Choir Press in July 2021.