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James Hanley: Levine

This is the story of two humans who have been discarded by life and end up on the rubbish heap. Felix is Polish. When he was around twelve years old, soldiers came to his village and killed all the adults, including his parents. He escapes, vowing never to return. He becomes a sailor and sails around the world in a freighter. His only friend is a pet cobra that he acquires in Karachi. However, his ship is wrecked and he is the only survivor. He lands up in England, where he is sent to a camp but he escapes and tries to find a port, so he can resume his career at sea. However, he gets lost and ends up at an evacuee camp somewhere out in the country, where he meets Grace.

Grace is an Irish Catholic. Her parents are very strict in their religion. Their affection is lavished on the older son, Peter, (whom we never meet but hear a lot about). Peter is destined to be a priest but he leaves the seminary and, as we discover near the end, becomes a sailor. Grace, a second thought in her parents’ affections, is destined to be a nun but, at the key moment, she declines, to her parents’ disappointment. However, at the start of the novel she is forty-five and has spent all her life with her parents. Indeed, apart from her father and priests, she has had no contact with a man. She is torn between her loyalty to her parents and to her religion, on the one hand, and her resentment at how she has been excluded from life, on the other. She has moved with her parents to London. When they are killed in an air raid, she immediately heads for the nearest train station and escapes to the evacuee town, without even waiting to bury them. There she meet Felix.

Poor Grace is desperate for the affection of a man, any man. Felix wants only to be left in peace and to get back to a ship. However, he goes along with her suggestions, which include his moving in with her and then marrying her at a registry office (the priest refuses to marry them). But Felix resents her and her smothering presence. Most of the book involves a flashback of their two lives and what led them to this predicament and what happens when things go wrong. And sad, pitiful lives they are.

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