I was aware that Agatha Christie had written several books under the name of Mary Westmacott but I had never really thought about trying one until I saw that the February book for the Read Christie 2019 Challenge was Giant’s Bread. Published in 1930, this is the first of the Westmacott novels, so seemed like a good place to start with them. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why she used a pseudonym as it’s very different from the mystery novels for which she is much more famous, but it’s still enjoyable in its own way and I will definitely be going on to read more Westmacott books.
Giant’s Bread is the story of a young man and his love of music. We first meet Vernon Deyre as a child, growing up in a wealthy household under the care of a succession of nursemaids and servants. With a highly-strung, melodramatic mother and a father who is more interested in other women than in his wife, Vernon retreats into a world of imaginary friends – and imaginary monsters, such as the grand piano, which he thinks of as a vicious ‘Beast’ with teeth. This irrational fear makes him avoid all forms of music until, as an adult, he allows himself to listen for the first time and is enchanted by what he hears.
Although the focus is mainly on Vernon as he pursues a career in music, determined to make up for all the years he has wasted, we follow the stories of several other characters too. There’s Joe (Josephine), Vernon’s cousin and best friend, an independent and rebellious young woman who wants to become a sculptor; the beautiful, timid Nell Vereker, Vernon’s childhood playmate with whom he later falls in love; Jane Harding, an older woman who shares his love of music; and Sebastian Levinne, whose family buy the house next to the Deyres’ estate, Abbots Puissants. Sebastian is Jewish, and yes, you can expect some of the anti-Semitism that appeared in so many books from this era – but despite that, I thought he was portrayed as the most likeable of the five main characters in the novel. The others are all deeply flawed people but, of course, that is what makes them and their struggles so interesting to read about.
Before I started to read Giant’s Bread, I had the impression that Mary Westmacott’s books were light romances, but that’s not how I would describe this one at all. Although characters do fall in and out of love over the course of the novel, it’s not a very romantic story – more a story of the sacrifices we are prepared or not prepared to make in order to get what we want out of life. This is illustrated particularly well with Nell’s storyline, in which she has to decide whether her love for Vernon is more important to her than her love of comfort and luxury.
Towards the end of the novel, things became much more dramatic, with some very implausible plot twists and some coincidences that seemed far too convenient! It was disappointing because up to that point I had really believed in the story and the characters. This did let the book down, in my opinion, but didn’t spoil it too much, as there had been so much else that I’d loved. The early chapters describing Vernon’s childhood were wonderful and captured the way a lonely, imaginative little boy may have looked at the world. Later in the book, I enjoyed reading about Nell’s experiences as a nurse during the First World War.
On finishing the book, I wasn’t entirely sure what message Christie wanted us to take away from it. Yes, Vernon and the others had made sacrifices, but were we supposed to agree that those sacrifices were worthwhile or not? If anyone else has read the book, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that. I do like books that leave me with something to think about and this one certainly did. I hope the other Mary Westmacott novels will be equally fascinating.
If you’re wondering, the title Giant’s Bread comes from the lines spoken by the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk – ‘Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive, or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread’.