ON GREEN DOLPHIN STREET
Those who prize Sebastian Faulks as a chronicler of love and war may be dismayed by the opening of his new novel. Charlie van der Linden, a British diplomat, and his wife Mary are giving a party in Washington DC to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Outside, their guests’ new Cadillacs stand in an orderly row; upstairs, the children are peacefully asleep. The year is 1959, and we appear to be a world away from the front-line ferocity of Birdsong or the behind-the-lines derring-do of Charlotte Gray.
Something, though, is not quite right. Charlie is drinking too much; a guest gashes his hand and drips blood on the parquet floor; and when Mary goes to bed, she dreams of her first boyfriend, killed in action in North Africa. The world may be nominally at peace, but it is an uneasy one, bought at a heavy price.
Faulks is good at menace, but one of the many impressive things about On Green Dolphin Street is how sparingly he uses it. Although the book encompasses Cold War manoeuvrings, McCarthyite goons and a nerve-wracking expedition to Moscow, these are things that illustrate rather than shape the emotional drama at its heart.
The catalyst is Mary’s meeting with Frank Renzo, a newspaper reporter whose hard journey through life has ignited a crusading spirit in him. Like Charlie, Frank is a war veteran who has experienced too much, and who sees a chance of salvation in Mary’s gift for love and life. While the nation’s eyes are on Nixon and Kennedy tussling for the presidency, Mary’s vote floats between her passion for Frank and her devotion to her husband and children.
To describe this simply as a love triangle, however, would be an insult to geometry. Faulks’s interest lies in something much bigger: man’s transience, and the emotional bulwarks that we raise against ‘time’s linear, destructive rush’. The death of her mother forces Mary to decide how she will deal with the fragility of life: through the complex dynamics of the family, or through a love she believes can transcend it.
Faulks floats these questions deftly. He also gives us, in Charlie, that rarest of literary creations, an interesting drunk. If On Green Dolphin Street has a weakness, it is that some of the period detail seems too obviously borrowed from magazines; but it remains a beautiful and moving love story which strongly deserves to be read.