The Amazing Mrs Livesey

The publisher sent me this book at no cost.

29220952.jpgSo Ethel Swindells – whose name is hilarious in context – had something like forty aliases, eight official marriages, five divorces (… think about that for a moment…), four children, and a few stints in prison. She gained goods on credit, borrowed money, passed fraudulent cheques, stole from numerous people, and tried very hard to live the high life whenever possible. She apparently got to be about 20 stone (c. 125kg), which is relevant because it meant she could be identified on the street more easily than not when there were outstanding warrants; she could be incredibly friendly and lovely and persuasive; she left all of her children when they were young; she made up amazing stories about her life, borrowing liberally from movie stars she admired. Reading the story of her life is horrifying, because she hurt and near-ruined a lot of people, but also fascinating, to see how one person could leave quite such a trail of destruction.

It’s not quite tragedy + time = comedy, but it does come close.

However, I’m conflicted on this book.

On the one hand: holy smokes, a book about a woman! One who wasn’t noble and wasn’t a saint and isn’t generally famous today! That’s pretty awesome.

On the other hand I was disappointed to have a suspicion confirmed by the Author’s Note – at the end of the book: that this is written “as narrative or factional history, real people and actual events… woven together with fictitious character names, and imagined conversations and actions to bridge occasional gaps in the storyline or account for unnamed people.” It was pretty obvious that that must have been what Nicholls was doing, since there was no way that the levels of detail she represented could exist about such a person, but it was annoying to find this at the end of the book; felt a bit like misrepresentation, actually, which is hilarious in a book about a conwoman. I have little problem with reconstructed conversation – I’m not so naive – but I would have liked a note about what the book was trying to do, up front. Additionally there’s one moment where the narrative acknowledges an unnamed character, but that’s all; I’m left wondering if there were others.

Also there were some annoying typos, which aren’t the fault of the story but always grate on me.

If you’re interested in semi-ordinary life in Britain and Australia during and between the world wars, this gives something of a glimpse. It’s not the best written book in the world, but it’s a fast read and it’s generally engaging and Mrs Livesey (… etc…) was clearly quite something.

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