I read The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith because it has been heavily promoted and heartily recommended, especially in bookshops in Cornwall which I visit regularly, though, despite its current fame (or notoriety), I've never visited Newquay, the specific area featured in the book. This is the story of a childhood in the 1920s and 30s which though there is plenty of justification for it being a misery-memoir, is resolutely not one.
Emma Smith is a warm, engaging narrator, who brilliantly manages to convey the inner voice of a child and a child's-eye view of the adult world, trying to understand and guess at what is going on around her. Her parents are not happy and, unfortunately, her father comes across as an embittered, self-pitying bully who spouts the prejudiced received ideas about class, race and religion common to his time and who is always ready to mete out violent punishment to his children. Emma Smith traces his behaviour both to disappointment at his failure to be a successful artist and, having been 'reduced' to working as a bank clerk, an unsatisfied sense of entitlement to the life and income of a gentleman.
Against this lurking fear of her father's anger, Elspeth (her real name) relies heavily on the companionship of her elder sister Pam and her nanny/housekeeper Lucy. And as a counterweight to her oppressive home-life, always in the background are the beaches of Cornwall, especially the Great Western Beach, an ever-present playground and source of pleasure. Unlike the Cornwall I know, it hardly ever seems to rain, except, with excellent literary timing, at the end of the book, when the family are preparing to leave the town forever.
Smith has amazing recall and there are many amusing anecdotes recounting both the pleasures and the perplexing events of childhood. An aborted one-off visit by Lawrence of Arabia (an old friend of Elspeth's mother) is described from a filmic distance by a confused Elspeth. Having wandered off to play in the sea, the children watch uncomprehendingly as their father (who had been earnestly hoping to make arrangements to paint Lawrence's portrait and at last make his name as an artist) strides off in a huff from the planned beach picnic, followed shortly afterwards by Lawrence roaring off up the cliff on his motorbike (the selfsame bike on which he later suffered a fatal crash).
This is a very good read, though it could have been cut in a few places as there is a fair bit of repetition, but this can sometimes reinforce the authentic feel of a child telling the story. (Also no proofreader? Or proofreader not paid enough [more likely]? Lots of howlers, e.g. sailing in a 'dingy', learning how to 'crotchet' a woollen hat, and 'Anglesea'!)