July 26, 2013 7:11 pm

Blithe spirit

Noël Coward’s twilight years at home in Jamaica

Firefly, by Janette Jenkins, Chatto, RRP£12.99, 224 pages

 

Noël Coward’s Jamaican hilltop residence, Firefly, is now a museum dedicated to the songwriter and playwright who died there in 1973. Guides talk respectfully about “Sir Noël” and his statue, cigarette in hand, presides over the garden.

Janette Jenkins’ novel Firefly is a moving study of Coward’s declining years there. The amount of enjoyment he can extract from each identical, paradisal day is diminishing, and Jenkins captures the weary banter he still feels compelled to deliver, even to his staff.

His central relationships are now with them rather than the ex-boyfriend who lives in Blue Harbour, Coward’s other house on the island. When the book opens, the energetic manservant Patrice is filling in for the more trusted Miguel, and driving Coward mad with his dreams of being a waiter at the Ritz.

In between haircuts, cocktails, doctors’ visits and slow walks around the pool, Coward’s attention drifts back to the figures who peopled his extraordinary life: a hungover Peter O’Toole; the waspish Gertrude Lawrence; campery with Michael Redgrave; and A-list Hollywood friends.

Jenkins writes well about the indignities of ageing, especially pronounced in the celebrity realm: the difficulty, for example, of making it to the washroom in time in a crowded restaurant where people are peering at you; the exhaustion of parties where you’re expected to do a turn.

Though Coward jokes that his knighthood was delayed because he once served the Queen Mother goat curry in coconut shells, there is a more likely reason. “So you are a definite homosexual, Boss?” Patrice asks. “I like to give them a hand,” Coward replies.

Appropriately for a novel about a playwright, dialogue is plentiful but frequently enigmatic, as though waiting for actors to amplify it. Patrice and Coward’s debates about the competing merits of England and Jamaica and the wording of the important job reference Patrice requires are the nearest thing we get to a plot. Coward meets friends who are considering leaving Jamaica (“it doesn’t feel the same, now they’ve got their independence”) and hosts lunch for an annoying actress, but the present seems insubstantial compared to his glittering past.

Firefly is a light-footed homage to a writer who means much to Jenkins, though she is not uncritical. Coward’s plight and gallantry command our compassion, even as his snappishness towards Miguel and Patrice, met with good humour and kindness, deteriorates into petty cruelty. It’s the little touches that linger, such as the discovery that this most sophisticated of souls liked nothing better of an evening than to reread an E Nesbit novel, accompanied by a stiff brandy.

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