The novel starts at the end of the Second World War. Freya Wyley, aged 20, has been doing intelligence work for the Wrens and comes up to London to see her increasingly estranged parents, and to enjoy the victory celebrations. Her father, Stephen, is a well-known portrait painter and Freya’s background is relatively privileged. Stephen appeared as a younger man in Quinn’s previous novel Curtain Call, as did as the homosexual theatre critic James Erskine, whom Freya meets. Freya is a feisty, rather selfish, supremely ambitious and highly confident young woman. She takes up her deferred undergraduate course at Oxford in the autumn of 1945, and there finds her vocation as a writer.
She is sent down at the end of her first year for having headed off to Nuremberg without authorisation during exams to seize an irresistible opportunity to interview the famed travel writer Jessica Vaux. This article gives Freya her big break, and she becomes a driven journalist in a largely male domain. Freya continues to take few prisoners in her professional and personal life – the exception being the close friendship she has with Nancy Holdaway, who she met in 1945, and has ambitions to become a novelist while working in publishing, but even this relationship suffers storms and separations.
The novel is in three parts, ending in 1962. Freya’s ruthless ambition and searing honesty has created a few ructions along the way and she learns a few chastening lessons about her own personality and behaviour. I did like Freya as a character, despite her unvarying aggression, and the novel rattles along in splendid style, immersed in the conventions, culture and style of post-war England.