The name Freya is derived from the old Norse word for ‘spouse’, perhaps Odin’s. As a goddess she is variously responsible for birth, death, war and beauty, which seems to cover a fairly wide range of human endeavour. It is a name befitting the ardent heroine of this old-fashioned novel with a distinctly contemporary bearing.
An initial irritation at the use of a literary pun (the first of the three parts of the book is called ‘At Swim, Two Birds’ for no very obvious reason) and a sprinkling of period props (powdered eggs always pop up in the late 1940s) soon gives way to the pleasurable anticipation of a long tale well told.
Anthony Quinn’s previous novel, Curtain Call, was set in 1936, and one of its principal characters, Stephen Wyley, is the father of the eponymous heroine of this one. She has served as a Wren and finds the idea of studying at Oxford rather superfluous after fighting a war. Nevertheless, her friend, the young, naive and beautiful Nancy, is also going up, and so she is persuaded. Here they meet the three men who are to play significant roles in their lives: the theatrical dandy Nat Fane, the shy, mysterious Alex MacLeish and the ambitious, charming Robert Cosway.
Freya is divided into three parts, roughly eight years between each, and it is hard not to consume it as one might a TV box-set. Quinn’s willingness fully to detail each of his scenes attests to his years as a film critic. The episodes follow one another in almost entirely chronological sequence. The characters tend to be amalgams of familiar figures from the 1950s and 1960s; they escape stereotype — just — because Quinn is too good a writer to allow it. The book is full of delicious little lexical clevernesses: ‘the room was mutterish with conversation’, ‘faces harassed with boredom’, ‘an affably rumpled sofa’.
The milieu is London bohemianism, the demi-monde of Guy Burgess, the Colony Club, Profumo and the Krays. It is populated by painters, prostitutes, writers and other such ‘deviants’. Freya is familiar with them all, but she has little talent for lasting companionship. In fact, as one her friends appears to write about her in a novel, she is a ‘notably unappealing character for most of the narrative: wilful, abrasive, spoilt, demanding’. But she is also brave, sharp, determined and loyal. She swears like a trooper and has sex when she wants. She’s altogether disarming, and a little fearsome if you are a male reader.
Freya is not only a good costume drama. Its chief theme might be said to be the sometimes utter necessity of subterfuge, of concealment. Freya begins the book demanding honesty from all, but comes to recognise that ‘the truth wasn’t necessarily a way to set yourself free’.
It is a big but nuanced work, combining social history, acute characterisation and meditation on the need for personal truth-telling and public diplomacy. Pride interferes with the former; the latter is the cost of prejudice.