Sunday 16 December 2018

'Reimagining' of Cork woman's wartime love affair

Fiction: Ike and Kay, James MacManus, Overlook, hardback, 352 pages, €20.60

Ike and Kay by James MacManus
Ike and Kay by James MacManus

Damian Corless

He was a great general destined to become president of the US. She was a young Cork woman assigned as his chauffeur during the darkest days of World War II. Ike and Kay is author James MacManus's 'reimagining' of the love affair between Dwight D Eisenhower and Kay Summersby that began in London in 1942 and took her through the war zones of Europe and Africa and eventually to a new life in the States.

Born Kathleen MacCarthy-Morrogh in Ballydehob, our heroine hung on to the name Summersby after leaving a short, loveless marriage. A fashion model and movie extra, she displayed a gift for navigation when the war came, driving ambulances through blacked-out London streets during the Blitz. When the Americans joined the war, a special women's corps was set up to ferry around US army bigshots.

The author writes: "The main requirement was a good family background, a clean licence, the ability to drive a large American Packard anywhere at a moment's notice, and what was called 'a pleasing appearance'. They all knew what it meant: good looks, a shapely figure, something to put a smile on the face of a weary American officer in bombed-out London."

Thoroughly researched, Ike and Kay wears its learning lightly. There's lots of period detail, from the vagaries of weather forecasting to a woman's place in a man's world, but the setting is never allowed to get in the way of the clear narrative thrust. That said, there is nothing much to surprise or confound, either within or outside of the central story of love and betrayal.

Take the following close encounter with class-system cliché: "The smoking rule at formal dinners, the forelock-tugging deference shown by Claridge's staff to guests, the importance attached to clothes according to the time of day or season irritated 'the simple farm boy from Kansas', as Ike liked to call himself. 'Trouble with you Brits is everything is about class. Even the working class seem happy to be just that - lower than everyone else. They lack ambition. It's pathetic.' 'I'm not a Brit, I'm Irish,' she replied."

The author's first screenplay, The Children of Huang Shi, was made into a well-received film starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the adventurer George Hogg. Ike and Kay' reads very much like a novel written with more than one eye on a screenplay, and to this reader, the true romance could be delivered with more punch and economy as a two-hour movie.

The author's 'reimagining' will pique curiosities, and perhaps direct readers towards Summersby's two contradictory autobiographies. Dictated on her deathbed, her kiss-and-tell second remembering upset some powerful people, including Field Marshal Montgomery. Her ashes were scattered at Innis Beg, Co Cork.

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