In a tiny two-bed flat above a Turkish café on Neal Street lives Anna Treadway, a young dresser at the Galaxy Theatre.
When the American actress Iolanthe Green disappears after an evening’s performance at the Galaxy, the newspapers are wild with speculation about her fate. But as the news grows old and the case grows colder, it seems Anna is the only person left determined to find out the truth.
Her search for the missing actress will take her into an England she did not know existed: an England of jazz clubs and prison cells, backstreet doctors and seaside ghost towns, where her carefully calibrated existence will be upended by violence but also, perhaps, by love.
For in order to uncover Iolanthe’s secrets, Anna is going to have to face up to a few of her own…
Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars immediately drew my attention when I first came across it at last year’s Big Book Bonanza. The bright, colourful cover and the mystery posited in the cover copy captured my interest and the short presentation Miranda Emmerson gave about the influences for her story only solidified it. All of this is to say that I went into this book with high expectations—Emmerson met them all and more. Written with a light touch, the book is far more complex and far darker than its bright exterior would have you believe.
The narrative essentially contains three stories, and more than one mystery. Anna, Iolanthe, and Barnaby each have their own story arc with their own important secondary characters, which all interweave in unexpected ways. Despite the fact that each of these three main characters have their own distinct stories, the novel doesn’t read like a braided novel, it is a coherent whole. There is more than one mystery too. Not only does Anna have to figure out what happened to Iolanthe, the reader also gets to discover Anna’s past and the secret of Iolanthe’s past. I really liked the way Emmerson structured these reveals, letting them trickle out at the appropriate moments in the narrative, sometimes teasing more to come and at other times clearly giving the reader the entire story, but always gradually building a more complete picture of the character in question.
While the novel is set in 1965, it touches upon themes that are incredibly current: race, reproductive rights, immigrants. Miss Treadway is bursting with social commentary without slapping you in the face with it. I have to admit, it is rather disheartening to see how little we’ve progressed on these issues in half a century, and perhaps in some ways we are even regressing. First and foremost there is the issue of race, which is most directly confronted in the person of Aloysius. After Anna, Aloysius was my favourite character in book. He was such a good man and so very decent. I loved the way he treats Anna, with caring and respect and most importantly as an equal. But it is also Aloysius who shows Anna how ugly the world can treat you if you are not white and British in 1965 London. Similarly there are Ottmar and Samira, Anna’s Turkish landlord and his teenage daughter. They are treated as outsiders and lesser than, just because Ottmar wasn’t born in Britain.
But Ottmar and Samira aren’t just there to show how racist society is, but they also show how hard it can be for immigrant parents to raise their children in a culture that is so fundamentally different from their own. I loved how deeply Ottmar loved his daughter and struggled with letting her go. Samira’s resentment at having to live up to ‘Old Country’ standards, while she feels wholly British felt so real and tangible. Ottmar’s café also is one of the beating hearts of the novel, one of the places — like the theatre, the police station, and the train station — where everyone comes together and paths intersect. Its depiction was so vivid, that I almost expect that if I were to visit Neal Street I would be able to find his café and order coffee and baklava without any trouble.
Another important thread in the narrative is the position of women. Not just as it pertains to reproductive rights, though that certainly plays an important role and is crucial to the plot, but also the traditional expectations that are placed on them and the way they are judged and treated when they don’t confirm. Iolanthe, Anna, and Samira are all examples, but perhaps the most compelling example is Orla. Wife to Barnaby Hayes, the detective in charge of Iolanthe’s case, she is trapped in a marriage that is far from happy, living in a place and situation not of her choosing, just because she had to conform. I loved her unconventional, for the time, and brave choice and the way she chooses to do what is best for her and her daughter, not what is proper. But Orla isn’t the only victim in her marriage. Barnaby, or to give him his proper name, Brennan is just as much a victim of the circumstances they find themselves in. His story is just as heartbreaking as Orla’s and I felt for him. He has to be two different people, at home and at work, to conceal that he is Irish, so as not to ruin his chances of promotion and the ability to provide better for his family.
The narrative is suffused with a deep affection for London and the West End. The descriptions of the various neighbourhoods, streets, clubs, and the theatres made me want to go back to London asap and made the city come alive. Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars is an incredibly clever book, inhabited by compelling characters and telling a wonderful story. I absolutely adored it. It is my favourite debut of the year I’ve read so far and I very much recommend it. I was really happy to learn that Miranda Emmerson is currently working on a second book featuring Miss Treadway. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what is next for Anna and her friends.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.