It seems amazing that Ann Schlee’s work is not known to everyone, because she has always had her following and is still writing, but her four big novels written between the 1970s and 1996 are now out of print and hard to find.
Her first enchanting novel, Rhine Journey, about a Victorian holiday, was shortlisted for the Booker prize; and her second, The Proprietor, about the (thinly disguised) Scilly Isles and the nineteenth-century benevolent despot who owned them, was a huge success. The third, Laing, about the Scotsman who made the terrible journey to Timbuktu in 1848, though controversial in some way I now don’t remember, seems to me the best of the three. But it is her fourth book, The Time in Aderra, which looks the slightest, that I find perfect.
It is the dreamlike account of the year that a 17-year-old girl spends after leaving her English convent school in the 1950s. Her dress hanging two inches below her school coat because clothes in England then were rationed like meat, she flies off alone to Africa with many changes of plane to be with her mother and stepfather, the Governor of a tiny British protectorate. She has not lived with them together before.
The country of Aderra is trembling on the edge of handover by the British to the tribes of its northern territory. This is the will of the people. Freedom. The British must go. But the tribes are hostile and there’s the possibility of revolution unless the colonials can maintain their unflinching self-confidence, their stiff upper lips.
Flo’s mother temporarily puts politics aside in her delight at her daughter’s arrival. She believes romantically (maybe truly?) that there is always a special year in anyone’s life, and she wants this one to be Flo’s. So Flo is received into the colonial social whirl, the brittle and rather brave parties (How they all drank in those days! How they all smoked!), where she meets a clever, raffish man
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