From the first page of Little Gods, and the savage joy with which it describes a wartime bomb destroying a residential street, laughter and little shudders of sadness and wonder follow swiftly upon each other. “The bomb tore through the still night like birth, and landed like a foundling on a dark suburban doorstep. Every window in the street was blown out but only one house fell. It was so clean as to seem personal.”
The house the bomb destroys is the one where Jean Clocker is born, an enormous baby with the intense resignation of a Sufi mystic, to Wisteria, a woman nourished and animated by her bitterness at not being physically attractive or loved. Having tried to evacuate the tenacious baby from her body with the aid of gin baths, she finds the subsequent two-day birthing tough. Jean is born and weighed, “while her mother bled on the table next to her, her face an expressionistic rendering of pure horror – all eyes and angles, pointing towards the ceiling . . .”
Jean, however, just grows and grows, “a great, loosely strung together thing topped by a mass of dark hair . . . robust and quite heroically proportioned, in a former life she would have guarded a temple – or pulled one down on herself”. Her goddess-like size is belied by the seemingly meek air she has learned from concentrating on not breaking the things around her and from trying to inhabit less space than she needs. Out of necessity, she is acutely perceptive to the way she is received by others; she is “emotionally feral” and able to “wrap a year’s abuse in a minute’s kindness”.
For the bomb blast has rescued Jean by killing a mother who kept her in captivity, subduing her spirit with beatings, callous remarks, and the “creative torture” of a visit to a circus where Wisteria was thrilled to giggles by Jean’s despairing sigh as she compared the figure of a pretty girl on a pony to her own “solid physique”. Jean’s mother never wanted her and told her that no one would ever forgive her anything. But the world does want Jean.
Pretty Gloria Smith, daughter of a local confectioner, has taken Jean under her wing as a cause and teaches her to play at being a creature of monstrous strength: as Goliath, she stands still while Gloria stones her. Jean’s loyalty to Gloria is unwavering, such that “it was a matter of luck that Gloria never came across anyone she wanted killed”. Their friendship grows and survives their wartime romances with two very different soldiers. There is golden, reckless Jack, Gloria’s dream man, whose personality crumbles after a breakdown. And there’s Jean’s Denny, five feet four inches tall and the inspiration for a lust and a great love that nearly kill her when he suddenly deserts her. Jean, a magnet for extraordinary people and situations, gets mixed up in an evangelical faith movement. She works a little at blackmailing important figures in cinema on behalf of a penniless and forcibly retired film star. She goes into film herself and is a big hit in her role as Vashtara, Queen of Destruction.
There is much more going on in this witty, powerful novel than I can say here. It is a story about the tenacity with which lovers seek and cling to their love. It deals with the ways in which we negate ourselves and each other by choosing companions according to personal convictions about what it is we deserve. It celebrates the beauty contained within the grotesque, and explores marginalisation as a state people can get comfortable in, a place that saves us from difficult pasts. The story’s sensibility is both modern and evocative of the spirit between the two world wars, and the lot of the British war brides who sailed to the United States on government-funded tickets to join their GI sweethearts in the New World. Little Gods is 431 pages of glory.