Tin Toys Trilogy by Ursula Holden – review

This country house novel about three upper-crust sisters growing up during the second world war is much darker than it sounds

A gaggle of siblings in a big country house with absent parents, plus a governess, cook and nurse, is usually the recipe for a great romp. In Tin Toys Trilogy, however, it is evident within the first few pages that no such thing is forthcoming when the baby of the family dies – and the body count continues rising. With the resilience, or callousness, of youth, sisters Ula, Tor and Bonnie remain unflappable; as they each narrate the years that follow, from the beginning to the aftermath of the second world war, they grieve little and feel negligible guilt for their own complicity in some of the fatalities.

In truth, the girls have more immediate concerns on their minds. They are homeless, buffeted from their requisitioned house to an Irish slum, an experimental boarding school, a dilapidated farm, never welcome or secure. They have been raised for the type of upper-crust lifestyle that the world wars obliterated for good and have no money and barely any education, but nor the particular wish or opportunity to be rescued by advantageous marriage. Boundaries between the classes are fragmenting but disaster ensues whenever the sisters mix with lower social orders.

Nonetheless, the sisters romanticise the lives of the working classes, as they do most people they encounter. Perennial outsiders, they envy other girls their inviting houses, jolly Christmases and, most of all, their tight friendships and warm families. Their glamorous but chilly mother, incapable of love, sends her daughters in reckless pursuit elsewhere of the affection she will never give them. When found, affection is fleeting, while sex brings nothing but trouble. Viewed through the eyes of the children, it transforms dependable adults into mossy-eyed, syrup-voiced morons and aloof elegant girls into heaving animals; there's no romance, just shame, degradation and again more death.

Despite all this, Tin Toys is not all gloom – far from it. Through the parade of disappointment and tragedy, somehow the sisters maintain a sense of innocent optimism, which, if anything, makes the trilogy's final body blow all the sharper.


Helen Zaltzman

The GuardianTramp

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