She’s Leaving Home

Joan Bakewell began writing novels late, producing her first, All the Nice Girls, at the age of 76. Her second, She's Leaving Home, is set in
the same fictional northern town of Staveley but takes place two decades later, during the swinging Sixties, against the backdrop of the cold war and seismic cultural changes such as the advent of television.

The novel focuses on a family of three - Eddie, Beattie and their daughter, Martha. Though they look like the perfect family from the outside, Beattie's depression is making them deeply unhappy. Her oppressive and disapproving silences dominate their domestic life, driving the 16-year-old Martha to leave home for Liverpool. Eddie works at the Grande, the crumbling local cinema.

Bakewell is at her best evoking the excitement of the early days of television. Her most effective portraits are those of the Granada Studios. Bakewell vividly evokes the modernity of the building in Manchester, the vibrant atmosphere and the mingling of staff in the canteen. However, here, as elsewhere, there is a risk that the priorities of social history will outweigh those of fiction. The narrator tells us, "Granada was a company often accused of political bias by the authority that ran the independent companies" - a point that has no bearing on the plot or the characters.

It is through Martha's eyes that we catch the first glimmers of change in this small town - a coffee shop here, a pop concert there - and then the wonders of Liverpool in the Sixties. Bakewell's attention to detail is impeccable, down to brand names, the clothes her characters wear and the records they listen to. Yet there's a lurking a danger of nostalgia overload. For a book that emphasises the transition between two eras past, we get a strong sense of the present day - Bakewell is keen to remind us that things were very different back then.

When her first novel was published, Bakewell told the Daily Telegraph that she had "read and reread all [the] literary writers that I admired and quite soon realised I couldn't compete with them", so she had concluded that she should "write a book that people I knew would want to read". This is a modest aim and, in her affectionate conjuring of an era gone by, she may have achieved it.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral