The Rhymes of History: Sarah Bower on Lines and Shadows
WRITTEN BY KATHERINE STANSFIELD
Sarah Bower was eight during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and what she remembers as “the dark and fearful mood” of this time underpins her new novella Lines and Shadows (StoryMachine, 2023). The story is set in 1960 on the coast of Suffolk in Eastern England where Ginny Matlock, newly graduated with a degree in maths, takes up a job in “general computing duties” at a Royal Air Force base in fictional Aldeford. The world is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, but the conflict in Korea has touched the lives of characters in Lines and Shadows. The impact of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are being studied by those working at the airbase, even as the Cold War is underway, bringing the threat of nuclear destruction.
The sense that “war is always with us” is something Bower is mindful of, calling it “worth writing about because it pushes us to our extremes, both good and bad, to the outer edges occupied by the novelist’s imagination.” And yet she notes that “the book did feel quite historical” when she started writing: “the music, the fashions, the attitudes towards women. However, by the time I finished it, Russia had invaded Ukraine, and the possibility of nuclear war in Europe had once again found its way into the public discourse.” But Bower is cautious about writers of historical fiction setting out with such parallels in mind: “One rarely succeeds if one sets out deliberately to draw parallels or lessons from history. That said, I am very prone to finding points where history seems to ‘rhyme’”.
Central to Lines and Shadows is being on the edge of a new existence. Ginny feels she’s living in “a world teetering on the brink of annihilation” due to the arms race, but for the historical novelist looking back, 1960 is a turning point in many ways. Bower says, “I wanted to write about a girl in the early 1960s, particularly, because it is one of those short periods when everything is holding its breath and teetering on the cusp of change, a period of pre-pubescent innocence before what we now think of as ‘the Sixties’ got going. Precisely because of that, however, the early Sixties are ‘another country’”.
Ginny understands the world through a mathematical lens: “the notion that, even in mathematics, statements existed which were neither provable nor refutable darkened the edges of her vision as though a storm were brewing just out of sight, over the wide, watery horizon”. This “watery” lack of certainty is reflected in the novella’s setting. The airbase is on Aldeford Island, a place both tangible and elusive in the story – the base has its own infrastructure and culture, but the island’s coast is constantly redefined by the sea. This fictional island is based on real-life Orford Ness in Suffolk where various kinds of weapons testing took place from the Second World War to the 1980s. The East Anglian coast proves “consistently inspiring” for Bower. From its past swims the unsettling figure of a creature brought ashore by local fishermen during the reign of Henry II and subsequently tortured, based on the legend of the Orford Merman.
Ginny lodges at Briar Cottage, next to The Merman pub. Her housemates are fellow base employees Alicia and Frank. Alicia is a dreamy society gal who bites her nails in an attempt to make herself “more normal”, while Frank is one of the American military personnel who share the base with the British – an enigmatic young woman with secrets. Not least of which is the fate of “poor Sue”, the previous occupant of Ginny’s room at Briar cottage who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The question of who can be trusted during this period of Cold War espionage pervades the novella. Ginny herself doesn’t quite “add up” in the world of 1960, feeling like “a mathematical brain mistakenly encased in a female body”. She’s at the cutting edge of nuclear warfare, designing bomb-proof housing for weapons’ triggers – work that a colleague refers to as “bomb shelters for bombs”.
Ginny is known on the base as a “female computer”. Bower first came across this term used to describe the Black women mathematicians who worked for NACA and NASA in the 1950s and 60s, “wonderfully commemorated in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures.” Bower notes that, by the late Sixties, “the idea of the programmer was more prevalent. The machine computed according to programmes devised and populated by people. Interestingly, Shetterly’s book tells how difficult it was for the women computers to transfer to programming, even though most of them had the skills in spades. Computing was seen as an almost suitable job for a woman because it involved making responsive deductions from information they received from more senior men. Programming, on the other hand, is a process of origination and of course, women were only ever any good at originating babies.”
Tensions between work and motherhood come to the fore in Lines and Shadows with grave consequences. This element of the story also has a “rhyme” with history, as Bower notes: “We value motherhood and we value work but somehow, if a woman tries to do both, she ends up falling through a gap between the two. I think the pressures which undo Ginny will resonate with new mothers today just as much as then.”
And the novella also finds a “rhyme” with the future. Bower feels the dread of the early 1960s is upon us today as we grapple with the climate crisis. “The juxtaposition of the nuclear age with a landscape which is endlessly shifting at the mercy of winds and tides also conjures climate anxiety for me and is undoubtedly the existential threat my grandchildren are under, as I was under Mutually Assured Destruction at their age.” Lines and Shadows is a telescopic story, looking forwards as well as back, while the sands of time shift beneath us.
About the contributor: Katherine Stansfield’s latest historical crime novel is The Mermaid’s Call, set in Cornwall in 1845. She is also one half of the fantasy crime-writing duo D. K. Fields.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 105 (August 2023)