Her creator, on the other hand — now that’s a whole different story. I fell in love with Jackie Winspear almost at once, right there on Page 24 of her engaging, amusing and moving memoir of growing up in the post-World War II English countryside. And then there’s the hopeful — and hopefully prescient — title of the book: “This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing.” It was hard to resist.
It’s on Page 24 that Winspear tells us about the lifelong fears that first seized her in childhood. Listening to her mother’s evocative tales of wartime bombings frightened young Winspear so much that thereafter, just the sound of a light aircraft in the night sky would send her scurrying under her bed to hide. “No one ever asked why I would emerge from under the bed when called for school,” she recalls. “Perhaps they thought I was just being a kid.” That’s pretty funny and endearing, but then she recounts confronting these fears decades later, in her 60s, with her therapist. “I began to pick at the skin around my fingernails,” she writes.
Well, that did it for me. It’s just a throwaway detail, sure, but anyone who shares this tic is definitely my kind of person. And in fact, the further I read, the more kinship I felt, being, like Winspear, a woman of a certain age who grew up in somewhat straitened circumstances with parents who’d lived through World War II.
But you don’t have to be a boomer or have had a mirror experience to get pulled into the world Winspear re-creates. It’s a world both nostalgic and soberly realistic, full of crystalline descriptions of the Kentish countryside and the now long-gone hop gardens that once flourished there. Winspear writes vividly of the countless fruit farms that supplied seasonal work to Londoners in search of a working holiday, and later to schoolchildren like Winspear, who were looking to supplement family income.. There are colorful individuals — see especially Chapter 23 and one Polly Norris — and a societal closeness that characterized small-town life in a less frenzied era. And Winspear expertly captures the ups and downs in family relations when life is financially and physically challenging (the Winspears didn’t have a proper bathroom or a washing machine till Jackie was a teenager) and all you have is one another.
Winspear clearly adored her parents. Well, mostly — she didn’t entirely escape that mother-daughter thing. Much of “This Time Next Year” is devoted to the couple’s hardscrabble backstory. Albert and Joyce were a pair of London escapees who found their postwar happiness in rural life, working in the hop gardens or picking fruit and living in farm-provided “tied dwellings” and even a “gypsy caravan” until kids came along. Then Albert got a better job with a commercial painting and decorating business. It was hard work, but he always made time for a ramble with his young daughter through the fields and forests surrounding the village they eventually settled in, stopping “to show me a rabbit’s burrow, a badger’s sett, or a nest, or to break open a prickly shell of a chestnut, holding it out for me to inspect.”
Where Albert was quiet — his own father, wounded in the Great War, couldn’t stand noise. (Maisie Dobbs readers will recognize the inspiration for the theme of the early books; picking out other parallels between Winspear’s life and her writings is a side benefit of the memoir.) Joyce was the fierce one. “My mother seemed to have her fists balled all the time,” Winspear writes. She was also the raconteur and the wit: “She liked to tell a story. . . . She’d make her coffee, light another cigarette, blow out her first smoke ring, and she was off, back into the past,” remembering the abuse she and her sisters suffered while “down evacuation” in the war, or being pulled from the rubble of her home during the Blitz.
That last dramatic tale gets a closer look in an epilogue — maybe sometimes Joyce was too good a storyteller? — but we get Winspear’s point: She’s her mother’s daughter. She, too, likes to tell a story, and she tells plenty of her own — about the accident that burned her as a small child, and another that knocked out several teeth and “cost me many sixpenny pieces” from the tooth fairy, and about the time her brother was in the hospital after appendix surgery but she heard him breathing in their bedroom (“Perhaps we [Winspears] were a bit fey,” she writes).
They’re good stories, well told, even if the writing sometimes slouches toward cliche. (ou could make a game of counting how many times she says something was “polished to a shine.”) They’re stories that wrap you in charm and good humor, and a sense of the resilience that undergirds Winspear’s tale.
“This time next year we’ll be laughing,” her father liked to say, whenever the family hit a rough patch. It’s a good thought to hold on to, whatever the trouble or the times.
Zofia Smardz is a former editor with the Style section and the Washington Post Magazine.
This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing
By Jacqueline Winspear
Soho. 303 pp.$27.95