It would be ridiculous to suppose that all modern writers share a likeness of style. That Rushdie is like McEwan is like Caitlin Moran. And yet – and yet. Each period seems to have a feel and a tone that is quite their own from which only the rarest writers; some distillation of language, some focus, which betrays their time of writing. Thirty pages into Peking Picnic, which I had purchased without much attention and believed to be a recent release, I had to look at the publishing date. It simply didn’t have the feel of modern historic fiction. And sure enough – 1933.
If this (not very deeply thought through) fact is true, it is surely most obvious in 1930s/1940s writing. The last writing before the world changed: a time of clipped manners, an upper class world soon to fade away, a general intelligence and depth of thinking and feeling that if people have today most certainly can’t explore intelligently.
The title Peking Picnic and initial set-up – colonial-period ambassadorial living in 1930s Peking – sound pleasingly light and even glitzy, but the heart of this novel is in a quite different place. What interests Bridges is what it is to live a life that is fully emotionally and intellectually conscious. Ambassador’s wife Laura Leroy exemplifies this state, a sort of intelligent cosmopolitan liberalism, and as such is irritatingly admired by all (even more irritating given that this character seems to be slightly autobiographical, Bridges herself being a embassy wife.) Meanwhile other motley characters demonstrate different states of semi-alertness to this slightly snobby state of fullness – we have characters who are physically/sexually conscious but with mental life, the opposite, young people with dawning realisation of the deeper levels of life that they never knew before… the full gamut.
Plotwise, the focus is an expedition to a glorious temple complex and the wonderful descriptions of this and the Chinese countryside are truly glorious, the detail evidencing the author’s first hand experience of these settings. These evocative settings are needed, though, as there’s not much to the first 2/3rds of the book but these, some budding love affairs and lots of inner monologues . After this meandering start there is a sudden flurry of somewhat melodramatic action (think brigands, daring escapes and even death) which is pretty compelling even if ultimately an anti-climax.
What makes this novel unique is the author’s skilful depiction of a special place and time and I found myself wishing that Bridges could have been a bit less heavy-handed with her psychological high-mindedness and let her real skills – place and personality – shine out. It is probably the mark of a first novel (albeit a super impressive first novel) that she needed to bang that drum quite so hard.