As Tom Grant saw it, when he and Louise turned up at London Airport to welcome Jay Nbola of Kenya, there was no reason for behaving as though anything extraordinary was happening: he had invited a friend to stay with them during his year at London University; what did it matter that the friend was black?
Louise Grant couldn’t see the occasion as all that ordinary, but it did give her the chance to prove she was none of those things she would genuinely have hated to be—prejudiced, provincial, reactionary. Thus Louise’s greeting to Jay was more cordial even than her husband’s.
In this affectionate and ironic novel, Nina Bawden has created two thoroughly decent and likable people. Yet the Grants, without realizing it, have settled for the most indulgent view of themselves and their own motives. The advent of a visitor from Kenya jolts that settled view. Reality gets under their skins: the presence in their homes of a “primitive” African triggers explosions of alarmingly primitive behaviour in their English hearts. And Jay Nbola goes through a considerable amount of hell before his host and hostess have suffered enough to see him as the wholly separate human being he is. When that has happened, they have also learned some crucial things about their feelings for one another.
First published in 1964, Nina Bawden’s dialogue is a delight, and her cool and wry compassion reveals the people of her novel as the very closest kin to all of us—under the skin.
Nina Bawden was one of Britain's most distinguished and best-loved novelists for both adults and young people. Several of her novels for children - Carrie's War, a Phoenix Award winner in 1993; The Peppermint Pig, which won the Guardian Fiction Award; The Runaway Summer; and Keeping Henry - have become contemporary classics.
She wrote over forty novels, slightly more than half of which are for adults, an autobiography and a memoir describing her experiences during and following the Potters Bar rail crash in May 2002, which killed her husband, Austen Kark, and from which she emerged seriously injured - but fighting. She was shortlisted for the 1987 Man Booker Prize for Circles of Deceit and several of her books, like Family Money (1991), have been adapted for film or television. Many of her works have been translated into numerous languages.
Born in London in 1925, Nina studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University in the same year as Margaret Thatcher. Following Potter's Bar, she was movingly portrayed as a character in the David Hare play, The Permanent Way, about the privatization of the British railways. She received the prestigious S T Dupont Golden Pen Award for a lifetime's contribution to literature in 2004, and in 2010 The Birds on the Trees was shortlisted for the Lost Booker of 1970.
Bawden passed away on Wednesday 22 August 2012, at her home in North London with her family around her.