War Crimes for the Home: Liz Jensen

“White blouse and a pink skirt, I’m wearing with a roll-on underneath and my best undies just in case I do turn out to be loose”

I came across Liz Jensen’s book: War Crimes for the Home by pure chance, and attracted to the cover, perversely reminiscent of J. Howard Miller’s WWII war poster,  I bought a copy.

we can do it

And here’s the cover of Jensen’s book:

war crimes

While the ‘We Can Do It’ poster implies female strength and determination geared towards the war effort, War Crimes for the Home shows a WWII era female factory worker applying makeup. It’s a subversive image, and it’s a portent of what’s inside the covers.

The story is narrated by the elderly, demented wheelchair bound Gloria, who finds herself, following an unspecified operation on her duodenum, parked at an “old folk’s home” called Sea View. You can’t really blame Gloria’s family for leaving her there. Her only son, Hank, works on oil rigs and is gone half the time, and there’s a long standing feud between Gloria and her daughter-in-law, Karen. According to foul-mouthed Gloria, who refuses to call Karen by her name, her daughter in law is a “crap mum,” and has a lover, who “comes and gives it to her every Thursday.”  To make her point, Gloria periodically demands a DNA test to prove the paternity of her grandson, Calum.

Gloria claims her memory is ‘like a sieve,’ and she uses her old age and her various infirmities as a refuge from accountability and her son’s probes into her past. Gloria is a tough old bird, but she’s definitely fading, and after the death of fellow resident, “half-dead old drooler,” Doris, Gloria lingers in a place between the dead and the living, memories of a murky past and a present in which she protects herself by vulgarity, dementia (which Gloria uses as a weapon) and uncouth jokes.

Gloria’s mind jumps from the past to the present, and WWII finds Gloria and her older sister Marje working in a Bristol munitions factory. They were originally a cockney family who moved to Bristol, but “things got buggered,” and now the two sisters live alone and are running wild following the death of their mother from cancer and with their father missing in Singapore. Marje has a fiancé, British airman Bobby, and then Gloria meets Ron, an American GI from Chicago.

Several big questions loom over Gloria’s spotty version of the past. What is the significance of The Great Zedorro and the Slut Fairy? Why is she haunted by images of a little girl, “dripping water and pond-weed” ? Did Gloria ever go to America? Here’s a conversation Gloria has with Doris:

-Hank?

-My son. American connections. Chicago. The windy city. I always said to Hank, if you shut your eyes, you’ll remember it. Skyscrapers and blueberry muffins and all that. I call him Hank from those days, it’s what his dad would have called him, it’s what Americans call their children.

-How long were you there? she goes.

-What, Bristol?

-America.

-Never been there.

-What?

-Seen it on TV, Chicago and that. I had a GI boyfriend once. He fought in Tunisia and then he bombed Germany. Had a big scar on his thigh from shrapnel.

Doris looks at me.

-One Yank, she says. -Remember that? One Yank and they’re off.

Gloria is a fascinating character–fascinating because she uses her old age and dementia as both a shield and a weapon. She can be as rude and as crude as she wants, and then when her son Hank tries to pin her on her past, Gloria submerges herself in her various diagnoses. Here’s Gloria’s daughter-in-law Karen visiting with a present:

-Are you going to have a look then, Gloria?

The bag’s made of fake silk which is red and Chinesey. There’s stones in it.

-Semi-precious, she says.-Healing stones, they’re the latest thing. I’ve ordered some for the shop. You hold them in your palm and they calm your mind. Re-energise you. I’m so glad you settled in. It’s a lovely home, isn’t it? Nice carers, lovely view–

-Do I look like I need bloody sodding stuffing blinking re-energizing? It comes out loud, louder than I thought I could shout, because the blood’s rushing about now. No stopping it. -Handful of bloody pebbles is all they are, look! Load of old rubbish!

I’ve chucked the lot at the window, and it splits across with a big crack. Then all the air from the outside is whoosing in, it smells of frankfurters from the harbor, there’s a van does them.

-Healing my arse. Healing, my flaming arse.

Next thing the little pregnant nurse is on the scene saying

-Calm down, please Gloria, all she do, she come give you nice present, you go break window! I tell Mrs M!

Calum starts screaming the place down like a spoilt brat. If there’s one thing I hate it’s a baby.

On some level, Gloria as sharp as ever; she knows how to wound people and always scores a direct hit, but then occasionally she bumps into a disturbing memory and verves off. Gloria’s family members want her to give them the truth about the past before she dies, but she fights her memories of life during WWII,  a time when the men are out there fighting the war, but at the home, the enemy takes a very different shape, and the women are left to fight their own battles for survival.

While War Crimes for the Home is a story about memory, on another level entirely, this is a story about aging. We are expected to engage in age-appropriate behaviour and Gloria who is, above all, a non-comformist is fighting against being scripted as the ‘little old lady.’ No wonder she strikes up a relationship with fellow resident “dirty old monkey,” Ed who gropes the nurses and plays with himself in public.

-That old boy she’s seeing to, I tell him, name of Ed Mayberley, he’s pushing ninety, he was a POW in Japan like Dad. He can’t keep his hands to himself, he can’t. Yesterday I saw him grabbing one of the foreign girls. She nearly screams the place down and slaps him. It’s abuse that. Someone should report her.

We all inhabit roles in this life, but as we age the roles narrow, and yet people’s characters don’t fundamentally change.  How often do we see our parents as individuals who have loved and lusted? Parents are advised to let their children be individuals and find their own paths in life, but does this advice trickle up the generations? Gloria refuses to be pigeonholed by her relatives and that’s part of the problem here. The elderly residents of Sea View who are frequently treated like children are fighting back against these rigidly prescribed roles with bad behaviour that’s cloaked by “Mad Cow,” dementia and age.

War Crimes for the Home will make my best-of-year list. It’s funny, touching, and original. This book comes recommended for fans of Beryl Bainbridge.

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20 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Jensen Liz

20 responses to “War Crimes for the Home: Liz Jensen

  1. Brilliant review Guy. Definitely one for Bainbridge fans. I read this novel many years ago and loved it – 10/10. Jensen is one of those authors who writes completely different books every time – and I’ve got three or four of her others on my shelves to read. I’ve read a couple of others: My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time was absolutely brilliant – a comic time-travel steampunk romance, and The 9 lives of Louis Drax psychological drama was also excellent.

  2. Though common and sometimes cliched, I tend to like stories involving older folk remembering earlier times. There is so much potential in these tales.

    Stories of the Homefront during World War II are also usually interesting.

  3. I’ve never heard of Liz Jensen but I like the sound of this. My library has My Dirty Little Book Of Stolen Time as recommended above and a couple of others that are completely different and sound very dark. Thanks!

  4. I haven’t come across this author before… if she’s like Bainbridge, then yes, I will like her:)

  5. Your comments about ageing and age-appropriate behaviour for someone like Gloria reminded me of a film saw earlier this year: ‘Grandma’ featuring Lily Tomlin as a rather feisty, non-conformist grandmother. Worth seeing for Lily Tomlin’s performance alone.

    I’m hoping to read my first Bainbridge in the next month or two, so I’ll see how I get on with that one. Good to know you see some similarities though.

  6. I was fortunate enough to meet Liz Jensen at the Geneva Writers Conference in March and attend a workshop with her. In preparation, I read some of her books – the one you’ve reviewed (Gloria reminds me of a colourful, larger than life landlady I had in my first year in London) and ‘The Uninvited’ which is sort of about an apocalypse but very unexpected. I really like her huge range of style, that she never writes the same thing twice. I’m going to read ‘The Rapture’ next, which is a companion piece to The Uninvited.

    • Lucky you. I’ll be interested to see what you think of the Rapture. I looked at The Rapture and the Uninvited and wasn’t interested to be honest, but now I’m rethinking that.

  7. Very interesting. I hadn’t heard of her and like the sound of it a lot.
    If she’s anything like Beryl Bainbridge I’ll like it.

  8. I read this one a few years ago and really enjoyed it – like you say it is a story on at least two levels which engages.

  9. I’m another who’d never heard of her. Love that opening quote though, and the Bainbridge comparison (Jacqui, Awfully is a good pick, I second Guy’s recommendation).

    I’m reminded slightly of the Elvis Costello song Veronica, which sounds like a jaunty pop song but if you listen to the lyrics (which most don’t) turns out to be about a rebellious dementia patient…

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