Shimmering with passion
A novel based on Noël Coward's final days impresses Mark Sanderson
It is 40 years since Noël Coward's light went out at Firefly, his bijou hilltop retreat in Jamaica. This short but perfectly formed novel recreates the dramatist's last days as he relives his brilliant career.
It soon becomes apparent that the tiny house is a gilded cage. Coward's health is failing; having a weak chest as a child has not stopped him chain-smoking throughout his adult life. Now his lungs – and legs – are failing.
He is dependent on his former lover, Graham Payn, and houseboys to take him for his dreaded daily constitutional. While Coward shrinks from the public gaze, Patrice, his present carer, dreams of escaping the sun-drenched island to become a waiter at the Ritz in foggy Britain.
Coward's mind is failing too. As he floats in his turquoise pool, dreams and memories waft him into the past, where he rubs shoulders with Dietrich, Garland and Olivier.
From the window of his London flat he is transported back by the sight of a passer-by blowing suggestively on a hot chip. Thus two worlds collide: glamorous Hollywood and the amorous homosexual underground. There are many brief encounters.
Nevertheless, Coward tries, as always, to maintain appearances and to put on a good performance. Lord Mountbatten described Coward as 14 men in one, and Jenkins shows all the facets of this supremely multitalented man. "The Master" – "Jack of all trades; master of none" – is by turns witty, charming, kind, querulous, proud, dithering and distressed.
This portrait reveals him to be delightful to know and frightful to live with – which is probably why no one does. Loneliness is the price he pays for splendid isolation.
The result is not depressing, though. Scenes of camp comedy relieve the encroaching darkness. One in which Coward mercilessly teases a Daily Express reporter – "Don't be coy. We could slip into the bedroom. No one need know" – is hilarious.
The use of the infantile present tense does grate, but is presumably meant to add a filmic immediacy to the story.
Jenkins evokes the early 1970s with aplomb. She also proves a virtuoso ventriloquist.
To cover so much ground in so few words, to bring back such a big personality with such brevity, is no mean feat.
Firefly shimmers with the all the passion and transience of life.