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Fenella Gentleman: Her first novel is moving and mature (©FENELLA GENTLEMAN)

Memory is like a stained glass window. Sometimes the light streams through, illuminating the past with warmth and colour. More often, it remains dim, dark or even opaque. Our recollection is clearest when we revisit our youth, but even then we see only vignettes, glimpses of glory and anguish, fixed forever in the mind. Like glazed medieval images, they are remote in time, yet vivid and immediate. Reminiscences are windows into our souls, suffused with gratitude or regret, as the case may be.

Such are the scenes evoked by an old photograph in Fenella Gentleman’s The Reading Party. Far more than just a jolly trip down memory lane, with a backdrop of dreaming spires, this is a moving and mature work by any standards, let alone a first novel by an author at an age when most people are thinking about retirement. Her background in publishing hardly diminishes her splendid achievement in launching a writing career in her sixties.

Gentleman has located her debut in the Oxford of 1977, basing it closely on her own experience there as one of a handful of female undergraduates at a male college (in her case Wadham) that had only just, after much agonising, “gone mixed”. I was in the same year (at Magdalen, then still single-sex) and knew the author. Her narrator, however, is not a student but Sarah Addleshaw, a newly-elected junior fellow and the college’s first female tutor. This choice of authorial voice is slightly tricky, because Gentleman has never been an Oxford don, but she pulls it off convincingly. The fact that Sarah herself is new to the game too is a useful device, enabling her creator to explain the arcane traditions and jargon of that time and place, though a useful glossary of Oxford terminology is also provided.

At first I was disconcerted by Sarah’s preference for indirect speech, and her habit of being nonplussed by the sheer masculinity of Oxford life; but I need not have worried. As the narrative gathers pace, so the energy of the prose picks up too. Gentleman can do gentlemen and she also does dialogue very well.

The plot revolves around the Reading Party: an annual vacation study week in a Cornish country house for a dozen undergraduates, supervised by the gauche but gutsy redhead Sarah and Dr Dennis Loxton, an elderly and intimidating philosopher. Carrock Loose, the coastal refuge where the Reading Party gather in late spring, is a character in its own right: ancient, creaky and comfortable, it provides the occasions for endless combination and combustion as the undergraduates get to know one other and themselves.
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