Spanish Crossings, by John Simmons, is set mainly in London in the years around the Second World War. Its protagonist is an unassuming young woman, Lorna Starling, who has left behind her quiet upbringing in Kent to live independently in the city. She is well respected by her colleagues at the lawyers office where she works. In her free time she is an active supporter of socialist causes.
After a short prologue the story opens in the spring of 1937 when Lorna attends a meeting at the home of Diana Seymour. Diana’s wealth and connections intimidate the young secretary but she soon finds herself trying to emulate the older woman’s confidence and style. At the meeting Lorna encounters Harry James who is recently returned from Spain where he had fought Franco’s forces with the International Brigade. After a night of passion he returns to this battlefield leaving Lorna bereft at the loss of her first, brief love.
Wishing to do her bit for the cause, Lorna has signed up to ‘adopt’ a child refugee, one of four thousand shipped from Spain by the Basque Children’s Committee. At Diana’s behest, the firm Lorna works for are to provide the committee with legal services pro bono and Lorna will be their representative at meetings. Diana and Lorna visit the camp where the children are being processed before being dispersed to colonies around the country. Lorna is introduced to the child she will ‘adopt’, a fifteen year old boy named Pepe whose age and grasp of the English language has made him something of a leader amongst the children.
Pepe is moved to a house in London where Lorna visits him regularly. With Franco gaining control in Spain, and the prospect of war with Germany increasing, the boy grows restless. Lorna understands Pepe’s discontent but cautions him to remain within the law that he may avoid being sent back to a Spain that is now killing its dissidents with impunity.
The timeline moves to 1943. Lorna has taken an active role during the war years, volunteering as a watcher for the ARP. She lives behind boarded up windows but appears largely content with her solitary existence. Her chief regret is that the life she had dreamed she could have had with Harry was taken from her. All this changes when Pepe reappears, declaring his love. Despite recognising their significant differences in core values, Lorna is tempted by the prospects this offers. She encourages Pepe to sign up to fight, thereby gaining his British citizenship.
By 1947 Lorna is settled in a comfortable council flat, raising a child but feeling frustrated at the limitations this has placed on her developing career. Although pleased by the social progress being made by the Labour Party she no longer feels that she is contributing as she once did. Her fear is that she will become like her parents who she has long regarded as insipid in their desire for quiet compliance with societal expectations. She contacts an old lover, risking the life she has built for reasons hard to justify. The guilt this elicits drives her to comply with a plan that she appears blind to.
Much of the book is written in measured yet evocative prose. It offers a picture of the difficulties faced by a young woman raised to be reticent yet determined to break away from such restrictions and stand up for herself. As she ages she changes, and she resents that this is happening. Her desire to be more like the self she aspires to plays out in the final section of the book where the pace changes to one of increasing tension.
I wondered at the continued obsession with Harry James who Lorna was with for just one night. Perhaps it is another case of curated memory, a comfort blanket she carried. Later in the book Lorna makes a return visit to Highgate where “She had enjoyed living […] ten years earlier”. She nurtures this thought, apparently forgetting that she had left because the flat she now views with nostalgia had become tarnished. It was earlier described as “not home, it was simply where she lived”.
There are a great many subjects explored within the pages of this book, many only briefly touched upon but nevertheless impacting Lorna’s life and those who influenced her. The Spanish Civil War is not a conflict I know much about so this added interest. The reactions within government to the child refugees is depressingly familiar.
I enjoyed the understated strength of the author’s writing which I first came across in his previous novel, Leaves. His characters are rounded, relatable yet never sepia tinted. Their imperfections enable a greater understanding of the scars created when life is lived.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane Publications.