There’s always a risk, when an author writes a book about how his book was written, that the story might get lost in detail that’s fascinating only to the author. So it is with Staying Alive, the story of Rosie Quarry, the real live person behind the Rosie Ewing series of books by British author Alexander Fullerton.
Fullerton is about the same age as my father, which makes him a teenager for most of World War II. There’s very little about him on the web, but Fantastic Fiction‘ tells me that he was ‘a cadet at Dartmouth at the age of thirteen and went to sea serving first in the battleship Queen Elizabeth in the Mediterranean’. His first novel Surface was published in 1953 and became a bestseller, and he went on to establish himself as a prolific author of books with wartime themes.
He started his Rosie Ewing series in 1995, producing four novels about her adventures as a secret agent in France after Paris fell to the Germans in 1940. These were based on research so it must have been a bit of a shock when the real Rosie wrote to him and offered to tell him the story of her first mission. Staying Alive (2006) is Fullerton’s record of how they met and talked over a series of days in Paris, interwoven with the story of that mission.
The trouble is, the story of the mission is really interesting, but the back story is clumsily handled and doesn’t really earn its place in the book until the very end. In fact, a lot of it feels like ‘padding’ to eke the story out over the required number of pages. Far too much, for example, about the croissants they ate at breakfast meetings and the cocktails at night, and there are sequences which seem somewhat belaboured, as, for example, where having arranged to meet Rosie to go on with her tale, Fullerton is a bit peeved when she turns up accompanied by some chums who are also attending the reunion. Far from being interested in other possible subjects for his fiction, he’s glad to see the back of them when they go, which seems rather odd.
Every time Rosie’s story starts to get going – and it’s an exciting story about a twenty-something English girl parachuted into occupied France as a radio-operator – Fullerton interrupts the flow of the story by bringing it back into the 21st century when Rosie is an old woman, mildly chiding Fullerton for ‘getting it wrong’ in his fiction and occasionally sniping at ‘Marilyn Stewart,’ Fullerton’s original source of information about Rosie’s adventures. It’s quite disconcerting…He writes so well, leading up to the climax of each heart-stopping brush with capture by the Gestapo – and then he promptly undercuts the excitement by lurching off to the back story again.
I like experimental fiction and I usually don’t mind when authors play around with form and structure, but it was annoying in this book, and if it hadn’t been for the excellent narration by Nicolette McKenzie it would have seemed like a complete muddle. With a versatile range of voices, she captures the crusty old English gent caught between flattering his subject with half-hearted flirtation and obviously feeling irritated by her, and Rosie herself, contrasting the sophisticated ‘Old’ Rosie with the naive young woman negotiating the perils of working with her contacts in the French Resistance, one of whom has suspect loyalties (though Rosie didn’t know that). McKenzie does the French men well too, not to mention the Boche. You can hear a sample here.)
An ‘okay’ story to while away the daily commute, but I can’t help thinking that it would have been a much better book if Fullerton had written it as a straightforward narrative of Rosie’s extraordinary life.