Book review - Coming Home by Sue Gee

In Coming Home Sue Gee eloquently recalls middle-class Britain in the 1950s. It is a time of apparent innocence where simple pleasures are expressed with a breezy ‘tickety boo’ or ‘jolly-dee’ and troubling undercurrents are swept under the carpet or remain unsaid.

Flo and Will have recently returned from newly independent India and have two small children, Baba and Freddie. With the help of a generous cousin, Will sets himself up as a dairy farmer in Devon. Life is hard but rewarding. Flo dreams of becoming a writer but realises that family has to come first. When Will is forced to give up the farm for health reasons, he accepts a job with the Rural Landowners’ Society and they move to Leicestershire.

Their idyllic country lifestyle is meticulously described by Gee – the lilac in full flower, the hay ‘warm and soft and slippery’, and the sound of melting snow as it ‘gurgled in the ditches’. Gee makes us feel the lashing winter rain, smell the flowers and hear the Blackbird’s song in summer. Home life is only temporarily marred when ‘Daddy’ mistakenly wrings the neck of the family’s pet hen or the children discover their favourite goose hung, ready for roasting.

The period is inherently sexist but one of Gee’s many talents is that she never appears to sit in judgment of her characters. Flo accepts Will’s slightly bullying tone, the way he belittles her attempts to write and his boorishness when supper is not on the table at the desired time – it’s just the way things are and she loves him.

However, the Second World War still casts its shadow and, occasionally, suppressed emotions erupt with ferocious force. Coming Home takes on a darker bent when a neighbour shoots himself and Flo has a breakdown. Somehow, though, the family pull through; they always do. Will is ambitious and after he accepts a promotion based in London they move to suburban Surrey.

Following the fortunes of one family, Gee vividly recreates a past way of life. She had me reminiscing about Dairylea cheese triangles, miniature bottles of milk, rickety camp beds, Woolworths’ wrapping paper and Hornby train sets. There’s also humour – in Flo’s delight at the duck-blue dressing-gown Will gives her for Christmas, Bea’s teacher’s reference to a rabbit’s reproductive organs in her sexual education class and Flo’s insistence on using the ‘lav’ rather than a ‘toilet’.

Gee is also remarkably good at expressing the children’s shift into adolescence – the sudden, inexplicable coldness towards their parents, the obsessive crushes and the consolations of fantasy. A quietly compelling read, Coming Home will awaken all your senses without you quite realising how, or at what point, it manages to work its particular magic.

A shorter review originally appeared in The Independent