Book review: Miss Treadway & the Fields of Stars by Miranda Emmerson

Those jarring sounds you hear as you dive deeper and deeper into the emotionally complex but thoughtful accessible novel Miss Treadway & The Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson are illusions being comprehensively and almost irretrievably shattered.

In the world of 1965 London, smack bang in the middle of the societal upheaval of the Swinging Sixties, Anna Treadway lives a reasonably cossetted existence.

Hiding from some uncomfortable part of her past, Anna is in the English capital trying not to go backwards in life although she suspects she may already be too late; her once hoped and planned-for study at Oxford University lies in ashes for reasons not immediately divulged and after a stint working as a waitress at the Turkish-influenced café below where she and the the eating establishment’s Muslim owners Ottmar and Ekin and their daughter Samira live, she is now a dresser for stage star Iolanthe Green at the Galaxy Theatre.

As close as you can be to a beloved star, Anna is shocked, along with the rest of London and England when, one night, Iolanthe seemingly walks out of the theatre never to be seen again.

For all intents and purposes, on the surface at least, Miss Treadway & The Field of Stars then becomes a missing persons story, with the detective assigned to the case, Barnaby Hayes, who holds a few secrets of his own close to his intrinsically Irish but English-sounding chest, the only one who seems to care, officially at least about what happened Iolanthe who all too quickly becomes yesterday’s news.

Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.

Sometimes those words made her [Anna] cry. The tears would come uncontrollably and they would not stop. And in those moments Anna found forgiveness and it made her free. But they were only moments. Forgiveness is a hard thing to hang onto.” (P. 22)

While Barnaby, who is dealing with a disintegrating personal life at the same time he is trying to find Miss Green hopefully alive and well, is the one who’s been tasked with what often feels like a wild good chase, it is Anna who throws herself wholeheartedly into finding a woman who, while not a friend necessarily, means a great deal to the young woman.

What Anna discovers at first is a world unlike any she ever knew existed.

Behind the veneer if frantic respectability of the nation’s capital where law and order and opportunity seem wholly and equally available to everyone, she finds a world of prejudice and bigotry, of people scrabbling to survive against a backdrop of the kind of discrimination that Anna, as a white middle class Englishwoman has never witnessed.

As she goes to visit back street doctors delivered outlawed services and finds herself on the possible wrong side of the law, it becomes that England, while in transition to a fairer, better place – though as the present day attests there is still considerable distance to travel to realise anything approaching a truly just and fair society – is hiding some very dark secrets in its underbelly.

Though, of course, if you are resident in that underbelly, they are hardly secrets at all; rather they are unpalatable parts of life that you have no choice but to navigate lest things become far, far worse for you.

Miranda Emmerson (image courtesy MirandaEmmerson.com)

Through the eyes of Ottmar and Ekin, and new Black accountant friend Aloysius with whom she bonds incredibly quickly while in the Roaring Twenties, one of Iolanthe favourite late night haunts looking for clues to her whereabouts, she sees an England she can’t believe actually exists, her spluttering inability to respond to it adequately, at least at first, testament to how sheltered she has been up until this point.

Writing with raw conviction and blistering honesty that will leave you gasping at the callousness and cruelty of systemised racism wielded as if it is a natural birthright, which for the white people of England it is, Emmerson explores, in the midst of whodunnit of sorts (though it’s never suggested that Iolanthe is dead), what life is like under the veneer of civilisational respectability.

It may be a shock to Anna but Ottmar and Ekin, Aloysius and others who are never quite English enough for the English, the way life actually is something they live with constantly.

People may flock to Ottmar’s café, with its unique mix of English and Turkish food, and Aloysius may yearn to live in the suburbs and eat crumpets and read the newspaper like a good and proper Englishman, whatever that is exactly, but the truth is they are only there under sufferance, a fact that becomes abhorrently apparent when Anna dives deep into the netherworld of the capital in search of Iolanthe who has left quite a trail of emotional and relational destruction in her wake.

“‘We are all capable of the most terrible crimes,’ her [Anna] father had told her. ‘ Everything is context. Everything is … mutable. Man is not capable of absolute good or absolute evil. he hovers in between the two and most of us beat our wings harder and harder as the years go by, fearing how it is that we might fall.'” (P. 185)

Emmerson has crafted a wholly moving and unsettling novel in Miss Treadway & The Field of Stars which functions both as a crime drama of sorts while devoting much of its time to the emotional and revelatory fallout of Anna’s single-minded quest to find her boss.

That it manages to be gripping and vivaciously pulsing with action, rich with vibrant characterisation and warmth of connection while shining a harsh light on London society in the Sixties, is an impressive achievement.

Miss Treadway & The Field of Stars holds its twin identities in perfect harmony, making it confrontingly clear that while we cling to the comfort and certainty of our illusions, whoever we are and whatever they may be, like they are life preservers and we are lost at sea, the truth is that they are worth next to nothing when the rubber well and truly hits the road.

We then have a choice, just like the one unceremoniously handed to Anna – we can either stick our head in the ground and pretend we haven’t seen what has appeared right before our initially disbelieving eyes, which really isn’t much of a long-term strategy, or we can face up to life as it is, owning up to not only society’s dark, terrible realities but to our own secrets, the one’s weighing us down and which might eventually sink us if we don’t acknowledge their existence.

At every turn, you will be enthralled in Miss Treadway & The Field of Stars by strong female characters, who have to make impossible decisions work because they have little choice not to, a narrative that sits easily between crime thriller and societal exposé, and writing so beautifully accomplished that it is dense with meaning and yet impactfully accessible all at once, all of which lend vibrancy and voice to an exploration of what happens when the world we know ends up revealing itself to be nothing like it appears.

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