This book is another excellent reminder of the need to take contemporary reviews with a grain of salt. I mentioned it in a post while back on books added to my "to read" list, and quoted a review which described it as follows: “An amusing tale of mystery concerning a strange assortment of people heading to a country estate where they will be living during the duration of WWII but they have a lot of adjusting to do with each other and then there is the matter of the dead body.”
More or less accurate, I suppose, except for the minor details that the country estate is actually a girls' school, and the assortment of people heading there are actually going only for a weekend visit during a half-term break rather than for the duration of the war. But the reviewer did get the dead body right, and it is certainly a strange assortment of folks visiting and/or working at the school.
For starters, there's Duncan Cary, who has been doing important intelligence work to develop a method of stopping German bombers, but he has tired himself out to the point of nervous breakdown, so he goes on leave and escapes back to Burbury, the estate on which he had spent happy childhood times with his cousin. But he finds it now occupied by an evacuated girls' school, and this particular weekend is half-term, with only a few of the students remaining. He is accompanied on the train down by two sets of parents, the Willows (very "navy" as the jacket blurb says) and the Passmores (class-conscious and petty—perhaps the name comes from their attempts to "pass" as higher class than they actually are?), as well as by Anthony Lord, a 22-year-old RAF pilot in pursuit of the older woman he hopelessly loves.
Said older woman is Celia Staire, a widow from an unhappy marriage, raising her young daughter while working for the school. It soon emerges that she is, in fact, the current owner of Burbury, but her poverty has forced her to let it to Miss Knowles, the school's headmistress. Celia's daughter Belinda, the Passmores' daughter Vicky, the Willows' twins Margaret and Daphne, and Jill Marrison, who, despite her only relative's being off in Cairo, becomes the center of several visitors' attention during the course of the weekend, all make occasional appearances, often for light comic relief.
Two unexpected guests, Mr. Brent and Miss Hartland, also turn up, both claiming to be friends of Jill's absent relative, and due to various odd circumstances which rather strain credibility, they, along with Duncan, are included in an unlikely gathering for picnics and weekend festivities. All the while, Anthony tries to convince Celia of his viability as a husband, Duncan heads on into his breakdown while the children adopt him as one of their own and refuse to leave his side, the imminent harvest of cherries for the school's jam is threatened, and suspicious doings, "careless talk," and even murder unfolds in all directions.
I know that many of you, like me, enjoy wartime fiction about life on the home front, and if you also like fairly loosy-goosy, character-based mysteries, then Cherry Harvest will be an enjoyable afternoon or two of reading. I wanted to really love this one and be able to rave about it as a lost treasure, but ultimately it was rather like a batch of cherry jam that's perfectly tasty but doesn't quite set properly.
There were certainly some amusements here, though. On occasion, the superficial, babbling Mrs. Passmore and her worn-down, cranky husband provide some comic relief, as when they pass through Oxford on the train ride down:
The train slid to a standstill, and they surveyed the crowded platform.
"Dreaming spires," said Mrs. Passmore, and moved her eyes from one empty slot-machine to another. "Who said that, once?"
"You, probably," said her husband, and heaved his large form into the corridor.
And I noted several interesting wartime references that provide a feel of the times, as when—predictably—the French mistress comes in for some suspicion:
"You don't think, Celia, do you, that Mademoiselle is just a wee bit Vichy."
"Vichy? Maddy? No, of course not. How do you mean, though?"
"Well, I don't know. Just an attitude she takes up, sometimes, when we're listening to the news or someone makes a remark. I can't quite explain. As if she weren't excessively fond of the English."
"Well, she probably isn't. Lots of people aren't, you know."
And Burbury itself can be added to the long list of country estates whose slow crumbling is bemoaned in the literature of the time. Celia herself, who owns the property, is matter-of-fact about it, but Mrs. Passmore, who aspires to all the trappings of the upper classes, sees Burbury's disarray as tragic and disturbing, and her description is a vivid one:
Stella looked up at the stone pediment over the doorway, which bore a much defaced coat-of-arms surmounted by some crumbling stone bird. Who were the people who had once Iived here? Antiquity, when it was decently presented in grey stone, with smooth lawns, trim hedges, and a mass of colour in the herbaceous borders, was really her idea of perfection for a house—if only one had the money to keep it up. These people obviously hadn't, and when that was the case, the oldness of a house chilled and terrified, suggesting ghosts and darkness, draughts, cobwebs and spiders. This place—Stella glanced around her at the wide expanse of tangled garden, where sudden flashes of blue showed where delphiniums reared themselves like flames against the stone walls, with its weeds and uncut lawns, its lichened apple-trees—this place was a fantastic mixture of the worst and the best, of discomfort and a vague disturbing beauty.