With the help of her hormone-ravaged son Ralph and maid-of-all-duties Winnie, Eithne Clay, a war widow, rents rooms to a showgirl-loving dandy bound for war, a ravenous woman with broken dentures, a Karl Marx-spouting blind veteran, and a family whose daughter is bent on more than guiding her shell-shocked father to the pub.
Beleaguered by rationing and unwilling to evict boarders behind in their rent, Eithne’s prospects and the lodgers’ meals improve when Neville Turk, a prosperous butcher, courts Eithne with “top quality bangers, sixty percent pork.” Annoyed, Ralph turns vegetarian, questions where the butcher gets his lamb chops, and demands to know why the man hasn’t joined up to fight.
Moggach deftly paints the deprivation of wartime. Families survive on “cabbage leaves picked up from the gutter” and thrice-boiled tea. Still, the lodgers gather pleasure where they can: the blind veteran cherishes his gramophone, war-liberated women discover their sexuality, and Ralph sleeps with a cat warming his belly—when he’s not lusting over bust-enhancing advertisements.
Historical details flow naturally from the story: inexplicably, Neville Turk finds able-bodied men to wire the house for electricity; Ralph and Winnie attempt smoking as protection against the spreading influenza; and delighted by her new telephone, Eithne realizes she has no one to call.
In the dark, secrets are revealed and exploited. Lodgers lie, plot, and blackmail. In a stunning climax, the choice between right and wrong is as complex as Moggach’s characters.
This review first appeared in the Historical Novel Society’s November update.