Book Reviews

Review: Strange Journey by Maud Cairnes

This is a fascinating bodyswap story that digs into 1930s class differences – I loved it!

Book: Strange Journey by Maud Cairnes

Publication date: This edition 17th March 2022; originally published 1935.

Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by British Library Publishing. All opinions my own.

Content warnings: Discussion of infertility (not in detail); minor car crash.

In this body swap comedy from the 1930s, the minds of two strangers, aristocrat Lady Elizabeth and middle-class Polly Wilkinson, switch places with baffling and hilarious results. With wry observations on class, behaviour and relationships, as both attempt to navigate the different social settings and awkward situations they suddenly find themselves thrust into – the switches taking place randomly with very little warning – the two women are eventually able to contrive a meeting and learn to control their ‘gift’ and effect positive changes in each others’ lives.

Strange Journey is a charming, unusual novel – it takes a fantastical theme, the ability to body swap, but focuses almost entirely on the real-life effects rather than the magical gimmick itself. Polly and Lady Elizabeth end up in each other’s bodies at seemingly random times and for seemingly random durations; at first Polly believes the swap to be an unsettling dream, but it quickly becomes clear that they really are gaining the use of each other’s bodies, while retaining their own personalities and memories. It’s perhaps a step further towards the fantasy realm than Which Way? (which I reviewed here, and in which we see alternate timelines without the main character knowing they exist) since the protagonists are aware of their swaps, but the focus is still firmly on the otherwise-normal lives of the protagonists, and the ways in which not being oneself can hinder (or help) one’s relationships.

I was initially expecting this to be a two-hander in terms of perspective, so we would see both women as they attempted to tackle their switches, but we actually stick with Polly throughout, which I think makes the social commentary sharper. Polly is a warm, believable character with just enough flaws to make her feel very real, and I found her very relatable even considering the nearly 100-year time difference. She’s a middle-class housewife, better off than many, but still concerned about making ends meet; she loves her husband and her children but finds herself stressed and exhausted at times by managing the household, and she sometimes daydreams about a more glamorous life. The exact details of her concerns might be different (not many of us have to worry about maids and housekeepers!), but her world is not so very far away from mine. Her voice is wonderful, too, chatty and personal in a way that hooks you in from the first page. Far more alien to us is the decadent world of Lady Elizabeth, into which Polly is thrust – not only the obvious things like etiquette, but even the slang is unfamiliar. The average modern reader may have some awareness of these things, but it’s only what we’ve received through media, not all of which can be accurate, and in that regard, we are almost exactly like Polly, whose idea of the upper classes is informed mostly by films and newspapers, so her discomfort is not dissimilar to ours.

I wouldn’t necessarily go into this book expecting a ‘body swap comedy’ in the modern sense; Freaky Friday this isn’t. It’s a comedy in the sense that it’s ultimately fairly light-hearted and amusing, rather than being full of jokes; the humour stems from the social disconnect between Polly and Lady Elizabeth and the mishaps it causes, but they are both (mostly) still working within very structured and polite relationship frameworks, so the errors are more in a wry vein than a laugh-out-loud one. The afterword makes a good point that some of Polly’s class blunders may not be as apparent to a modern audience, but I thought everything was telegraphed well enough to be aware of the awkwardness, even if you weren’t sure exactly what the cause was. And it is excruciatingly awkward in some places! It’s really well-written to evoke the growing sense of panic Polly feels as she gets caught up into conversations she can’t handle – since she is simply inhabiting Lady Elizabeth’s body, the people she interacts with can’t tell anything has changed, so as her errors and missing information stack up the pressure really mounts. We don’t ever see in person how Lady Elizabeth acts in Polly’s body, but we do see the aftermath, which is creepy to begin with, but funny later on; of course, it throws up a whole different set of social discordances.

This is a fairly short book, and to tell you too much about what happens would be to spoil it very thoroughly, because it’s all about how it spirals out from the seemingly small beginnings. Suffice to say that this is a warm, gentle book that expertly draws you into two very different 1930s worlds, and makes you see the humans behind the society. Polly, as a woman, is not terribly different from Lady Elizabeth, is not terribly different from a 21st century woman, and there’s something really nice about that! It’s a sweet journey of a book that is the perfect kind of Sunday afternoon read, a real cup-of-tea and a biscuit book. Five out of five cats!

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