Jackdaw Cake by Norman Lewis

What a brilliant book! I loved it. A memoir by the celebrated travel writer of his early life and young adulthood. Early years in Wales, followed by late teens in London and then service as a young soldier in WWII.

It is beautifully written – he has a fantastic turn of phrase and I am looking forward to reading his travel books. But it is, above all, hilarious, in that droll, deadpan sort of way that comes naturally to people who see the absurdity of life and recount it effortlessly, simply by mentioning a bizarre fact or characteristic as if it were not bizarre at all.

This kind of funny and entertaining memoir always makes you wonder how close it really is to an account of reality as it was actually lived. Is it really possible that his parents in law were Sicilians with mafia connections? Or that his commanding officer was a scholar of Old Norse who also spoke Latin and gave a speech in Latin to an audience of Arabic speakers, with an interpreter who spoke no Latin and therefore made up a speech that elicited cheers from the crowd?

Such things, or things like them, are possible. When I was at school, a boy was asked to read out an essay that had been set as homework. He went on and on until the exasperated teacher told him to shut up, as it was too boring. Turned out he had not written the essay at all and was making it up as he went along but didn’t want to admit it for fear of punishment. He became a very successful scientist later in life.

Anyway, my point is that absurd and funny things do happen even in the dullest or most dispiriting circumstances. This books celebrates that fact and turns it into beautiful, amusing and life-affirming art.


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