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A Lighthearted Quest by Ann Bridge

A Lighthearted Quest (1956)

by Ann Bridge

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Apropos of nothing, I read this right in the middle of sort-of-accidentally watching a Spanish language series on Netflix called "The Time in Between", and some of the coincidental echoes, especially in the setting, were a lot of fun.

There was no forward to this book (or if there was, I missed it) to indicate that it was, in fact, not written in the 21st century, but in 1969. (This has happened a few times lately.) I started to twig to it pretty quickly, based on a scattering of clues; the style almost couldn't be a product of more recent years. It's very specific to British novels of the time – see also Mary Stewart, D.E. Stevenson, etc. And if the sheer style didn't give it away, now and then causal tossed-off phrases like "that bunch of pansies" and "the Gyppos" made it pretty clear. So while I enjoyed the writing (except for the pre-PC moments, always surprisingly difficult to stomach), I was a little disoriented for a while. (Let that be your warning if you don't feel like having to cope with it.)

Oh – Americans aren't exactly Ms. Bridge's favorite group, either, if some of the descriptions are anything to go by. Harrumph.

I love the premise. After a sudden death in the family, a family is left without anyone to run an estate. That is, there is someone (a woman! Isn't it amazing?) but she has her own plans for her life (a career! Will wonders never cease?); she is willing to handle things for a time, but the only solution seems to be for someone to go find the family's heir, who sailed off with some friends a while back and hasn't been seen since. So a clever cousin is called in (another woman!!) and recruited to go look for him, armed with very few clues (but, happily, lots of spending money).

Julia is the young woman who is called upon to go hunt down the missing heir, and she embarks on her 'lighthearted quest" with a confident insouciance most of us can only dream of. Wander Europe with no solid idea where one man might be located? No problem. Make a temporary life in Tangier? No problem.

I'm really surprised, and sad, that I'd never heard of Ann Bridge before. I have been a huge Mary Stewart (no relation) fan for decades, along with Barbara Michaels and D.E. Stevenson and Elizabeth Cadell and so on – this series (because, I find, this book is the beginning of a series) would have been a terrific addition to that shelf. There's an intrepid young lady, exotic locales, vibrant background characters, sneaky and resourceful enemies, a dollop of romance, and a dash of archaeology – oh, and a glancing reference or two at Golden Age mystery – it's almost perfect. I would have loved it back in the day.

And I enjoyed it in the here and now. The writing – do I want to say it sparkles? Sure, why not – the writing sparkles. The story canters along happily to a suspenseful climax and a satisfying conclusion, and inspires a chuckle or two along the way ("storks have a capacity for looking disgusted almost equal to that of camels"). It sent me off down various eBay rabbitholes looking for trunks and other décor like that described in the book ("Moorish stuff—you know, antiques, leather goods and brass and so on.") "Why do you go hooshing off to find him in this completely wild-cat way?" – I want to start using "hooshing". And "The same to you, with knobs on!"
And one exchange proved that the more things change the more they stay the same:
"Has it ever struck you how apocalyptic the world is, today?"
"Yes, often," said Julia.

Me too.

Some notes which might be helpful to other American readers my age or younger:
"Le agradeço mucho su amabildad" is, in Spanish, "I really appreciate your kindness".
"the Old Lady of Thread-needle Street" is the Bank of England (I don't know why – I haven't investigated the story yet)
Tiens! Les petites feuilles – French: Look! Small leaves
Aucunément – French: nothing
Sabe todo – Spanish: (He/she) knows everything
Ah, méfiez-vous de cet homme-là – French: Ah, beware of this man!

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review. ( )
  Stewartry | Oct 2, 2017 |
Ugh. For two bucks, I gambled on the Kindle edition. There was a lot of potential here for me: young woman embarks on search for her missing cousin in Tangiers at the behest of her aunt, and in the process becomes an adroit amateur detective.

But all of that was spoiled for me by the rampant and casual racism and anti-Semitism throughout the book. A character who follows the protagonist is identified only (but repeatedly) as "the Jew," and another character is consistently described as "half-Negro."

What's as offensive, though, is the casual way in which the British characters treat everyone else--Berbers, Moroccans, French and Americans--as though they were nitwits...colorful and potentially useful at best, ignorant and barbaric at worst. The novel is sort of half-mystery, half colonialist travelogue, with descriptions of "exotic" North African scenes and customs that the characters regard as being solely for their amusement.

At one point, an American airman dares to critique the whole colonial enterprise, suggesting that Moroccans ought to be free to govern themselves...an idea the protagonist laughs off as hopelessly naive but completely to be expected from a former British colonial subject.

As a very bizarre and telling portrait of the end of the British Empire and the deepening of the Cold War (and the nuclear arms race) in the1950s, this is fascinating--but as a mystery novel, it does not hold up well at all. ( )
  rvhatha | Dec 23, 2013 |
A note on the title – most cover images and librarything/goodreads details for this novel have it listed as The Lighthearted Quest – but the kindle edition is entitled A Lighthearted Quest.
This is the third Ann Bridge novel I have read, having previously enjoyed her possibly more well-known novels Illyrian Spring and Peking Picnic I leapt at buying the first three or four Julia Probyn novels when they were being offered very cheaply on kindle recently. A Lighthearted Quest is the first of the Julia Probyn series. Julia Probyn is an attractive upper class journalist who does a little bit of sleuthing. Judging by this first book – Julia is more an unraveller of puzzles than an unmasker of serial murderers. I didn’t think this novel was as good as the other two novels – although there is a lot to be enjoyed in it. Those who like a fast paced mystery with lots of unexpected twists will be disappointed – this is definitely not that kind of novel.
Ann Bridge was a writer who used her extensive knowledge of the world and foreign policies that she gained by being married to a diplomat. Like Illyrian Spring and Peking Picnic, A Lighthearted Quest shines a light on ex-pat communities abroad. A Lighthearted Quest is mainly set in the French administered Morocco of the 1950’s.
Julia Probyn’s childhood playmate and cousin Colin Munro has disappeared, last heard of in Morocco and believed to be still there, somewhere. Julia is asked by his mother and sister to use her cover as a journalist to track him down and press him to return home, where he is needed to run the family’s Scottish estate. Julia gets passage aboard a small cargo boat and aboard meets the first of a host of memorable characters.
Once in Morocco Julia is amazed to find how reluctant to speak about Colin and his activities people seem to be. Julia is taken under the wing of the elderly eccentric Lady Tracey who arranges for her to work as a secretary to a Belgian female archaeologist. Julia soon has the ear of Purcell a mysterious barkeeper in Tangier, and soon catches the eye of an American airman. As she begins to unravel rumours of Colin’s activities, even catching a glimpse of him on a roof top – Julia finds herself attempting to get information from Moorish antique dealers in Fez. Julia uses her dumb blonde looks to great effect, charming her way through several sticky situations all while using her sharp intelligence to try and figure out what exactly Colin is doing, and why it might be quite so secret.
“Tangier from the sea presents a far more agreeable aspect than Casablanca. A line of ochre coloured cliffs stretches away towards Cape Spartel on the right, in the centre a mass of white, indubitably Moorish houses of the Kasbah climbs steeply up a hill; to the left the modern town slopes, also agreeably white and clean, down to the bay and harbour, and beyond to the east rises the Djebel el Mousa, Hercules’ African pillar – so much more pillar like than its European opposite number, Gibraltar, which from Tangier is barely discernible in the distance, vaguely resembling a lion crouching very low indeed.”
It is Ann Bridge’s familiar sense of place that is so very good – and which distinguishes this from other mystery adventure type novels of this period. The descriptions of the region are lovely, and Ann Bridge exposes the political issues in Morocco at this time. There are - maybe unsurprisingly - a few non-pc racial references, but they are of their time and I think should be left there. Although this wasn’t as good as the other two Ann Bridge novels I have read – I will definitely be reading the other Julia Probyn novels I have on my Kindle. ( )
2 vote Heaven-Ali | Jul 31, 2013 |
Like the title implies, this is a fizzy, delightful little missing-person mystery. When her childhood friend Colin cuts off all contact with his family while out of the country, Julia Probyn is drafted to find him. Using her occupation as a journalist as a cover, Julia soon sets sail for Morocco. Upon her arrival, she's surprised and frustrated to find that none of the people who would be expected to know his whereabouts are willing to tell her anything -- his bank and the consulate included. However, she's able to use her charm and tenacity to unearth clues that take her from Casablanca, to Tangier, Fez, and eventually Marrakesh -- where she briefly spots him before an explosion almost puts a permanent end to her search.

The mystery was engaging, the pacing was good, and the characters were charming -- and not just the human characters; the on-location descriptions were vivid enough that Morocco itself seemed a character in the story. Really, I found this so enjoyable I'm longing to visit Morocco myself.

One caution, however: the way Julia views people of various races and cultures and the benefits of colonialization is in keeping with the thinking of another time period. It's not malicious -- not at all! -- but it is a little disconcerting. It wasn't a constant presence in the story and I found it fairly easy to ignore, but I know different people have different tolerances for such things. ( )
3 vote thewalkinggirl | Jul 16, 2010 |
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When Julia undertook to find her cousin, Colin Munro, last heard of sailing a yacht off the north coast of Africa, the quest seemed lighthearted enough. But, before she had finished, she was involved with Moorish antique dealers, a Belgian woman archaeologist, Purcell, the enigmatic barkeeper, and American airman, the saurian Mr. St. John, and numerous other characters charming or sinister. Julia’s search takes her a cargo-boart to Casablanca, and thence to Tangier, Fez and Marrakech. Her ’dumb-blonde’ beauty, camouflaging a lively intelligence, gets her through unexpected difficulties and dangers. Colin is found, and the mysterious reason for his disappearance at last revealed...

The first in a series of eight Julia Probyn novels, The Lighthearted Quest displays a blend of humour and adventure which transports us to exotic places and introduces us to entertaining people, but also throws a good deal of light on the explosive political issues that French Morocco encountered in the 50s.
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