When Margaret Forster died, aged 77, a few weeks ago, my Twitter feed was full of people who were very sad about it, and talking about their favourites of her books. I’d never heard of her, but I was intrigued. One friend said that Significant Sisters should be given to every 16-year-old girl. So I looked up which of her books we had in the library – Diary Of An Ordinary Woman, and Isa and May – and asked which of them I should read first. Susan said this one, because she hadn’t read the other, which was a good enough reason for me.
Diary Of An Ordinary Woman is a novel in the form of an edited collection of diaries, kept by one woman over eighty years, starting in 1914. It covers the two world wars, the Cold War, the opposition to nuclear weapons and much more. A life as long as Millicent King’s is bound to be peppered with loss, and every one is painful, including the ones that she barely seems to grieve, circumstances having distanced her. She sees a lot, participates in major world events, is a pioneer without realising. It could have been real. As this review puts it, “Though Millicent never lived, this diary is an authentic record of how a century of English women were shaped – or, rather, distorted – by war. Anyone who cannot understand their mother or grandmother’s generation can discover here what caused their emotional restraint, their passion for collecting short pieces of string, their chronic inability to cook, and above all their commitment to us, our families and our children’s futures. This is fiction; yet this is true.” It is the patches, the gaps and the things left unsaid that make it so believable.
I took a while reading this, having got myself in reading fug, and also pausing to read Dumplin’, but I really did love it, and I’m looking forward to reading Isa and May. I’m also glad that it took me so long, because a woman saw me reading it on the train this week: her daughter-in-law had recommended it, and she wanted to know whether it was any good. As a London commuter, I don’t often talk to people on public transport, so it made a lovely change to have that conversation, which I would not have had without reading this.