Book review: Iris by Jean Marsh

Iris Winston is a ‘good time girl’ and in 1950s London, there’s plenty of fun to be found in the clubs and bars of the city’s seedy but exciting East End.

Raised in a dismal flat in shabby Kilburn, Iris is an innocent abroad in a world where ‘toff voices’ sound like a foreign language, champagne is a standard tipple and holidays are taken in France, Switzerland and even far-off America.

But when you are a ‘diamond in the rough,’ an unpolished jewel just waiting for Mr Right to take a shine to you, the refreshing sparkle of innocence can attract the most dangerous men.

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Jean Marsh, actress and co-creator of Upstairs, Downstairs and The House of Eliott, finds fertile new territory in the violent underworld of London in the 1950s and early 60s in this dark-centred novel which combines gentle romance with grim social realities.

Marsh is a perceptive writer and her powerful and dramatic story encompasses the full gamut of a young woman’s personal and sexual awakening in a society notorious for its gang violence and seedy manipulation.

In the post-war years, Iris, a look-alike for ‘it’ girl Audrey Hepburn, is struggling to find regular work so mixing with the fast set in London’s gambling clubs and private dining rooms is becoming an easy way to make money and friends.

For the corrupt politicians and criminals who run Mayfair as well as the East End, life has never been so good and Iris, with her innocent charms and good looks, is something of a novelty.

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She isn’t quite a call girl but she doesn’t mind accepting a fiver to pay for the cab fare back to her family home, or little gifts, or champagne in heady and glamorous restaurants.

Iris is not without a certain street savvy and is slowly but surely becoming aware that she is living very dangerously. How long can she go on trading in ignorance and beauty?

When she meets Steve Brown, wheeler-dealing ‘businessman’ and fresh out of Wormwood Scrubs, Iris is on a slippery slope and soon finds herself plunged into a world of brutal gangsters, well known for their terrifying brand of violence.

And innocence and ignorance suddenly become outdated luxuries...

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Rich in period detail and full of her usual vivid characterisation, Marsh’s compelling coming-of-age story cleverly recreates the life and times of 1950s London, as well as delivering a tender love story.

(Pan, paperback, £7.99)

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