Wynn Wheldon, Spectator.co.uk
Image from article, with caption: The swinging sixties
This big, colourful novel, written by a film critic and set in Fifties bohemian London, is as addictive as a TV box set
Freya is divided into three parts, roughly eight years between each, and it is hard not to consume it as one might a TV box-set. Quinn’s willingness fully to detail each of his scenes attests to his years as a film critic. The episodes follow one another in almost entirely chronological sequence. The characters tend to be amalgams of familiar figures from the 1950s and 1960s; they escape stereotype — just — because Quinn is too good a writer to allow it. The book is full of delicious little lexical clevernesses: ‘the room was mutterish with conversation’, ‘faces harassed with boredom’, ‘an affably rumpled sofa’.
The milieu is London bohemianism, the demi-monde of Guy Burgess, the Colony Club, Profumo and the Krays. It is populated by painters, prostitutes, writers and other such ‘deviants’. Freya is familiar with them all, but she has little talent for lasting companionship. In fact, as one her friends appears to write about her in a novel, she is a ‘notably unappealing character for most of the narrative: wilful, abrasive, spoilt, demanding’. But she is also brave, sharp, determined and loyal. She swears like a trooper and has sex when she wants. She’s altogether disarming, and a little fearsome if you are a male reader.
Freya is not only a good costume drama. Its chief theme might be said to be the sometimes utter necessity of subterfuge, of concealment. Freya begins the book demanding honesty from all, but comes to recognise that ‘the truth wasn’t necessarily a way to set yourself free’.
It is a big but nuanced work, combining social history, acute characterisation and meditation on the need for personal truth-telling and public diplomacy. Pride interferes with the former; the latter is the cost of prejudice.