1 January Cahill, in Arms and the Girl, was named for the month she was born in. All too aptly, since she is fated to live in the coldness and harshness of the lowest level of an underclass family. Physically abused by her father from the age of three, unloved by anyone but her ineffectual sister Prue, she lives by a creed of absolute cynicism. She hates; she destroys. But she has an independence, determination and strength that make her more than a victim. This character bears the symbolic weight Stevie Davies gives it by linking January with Jesus Christ.

Arms and the Girl is Stevie Davies's third novel. Her greatest strength — besides powerful writing, fine character drawing and splendid story-telling — is honesty. The Cahill family is anatomised with a brilliance of detail and unflinching recognition of horror that gives it utter conviction.

It is because January is the neediest child, looked after as a baby by the narcissistic eldest son, that she is singled out by the loutish NCO father to bear the brunt of his rage. He sees in her the unloved, unlovable child he hates in himself. His character is masterly in its sporadic charm, self-pity, weakness, loneliness and evil.

Living close to the Cahills in the remote Scottish village they are posted to when the narrative begins, in the late 1950s, are the Gordons: a Church of Scotland rector, his highly intelligent, conscientious wife and similar daughter. The Protestant 13-year-old Isabel befriends the Catholic Prue Cahill, whose instinctive response to deprivation is to try to escape into another identity, that of an intellectually aspiring Scot. She would ideally like to be Isabel.

But Isabel has the emotional security bequeathed by her upbringing to follow the search for knowledge to painful truth. She dares to question Britain's right to rule in those countries the army families have been posted to; she dares to tell her Calvinistic father she does not believe in God. Prue resorts, as life at home descends into hell, to seeing visions of the Virgin Mary. Her love of books becomes a mere search for solace.

Throughout this novel Stevie Davies demonstrates the symbiotic relationship of evil and the denial of truth and reality. Hugh Cahill finds dangerous comfort in his church's offering of forgiveness through self-deceiving confession.

Mary Cahill does infinite damage by blinding herself to his sexual abuse of their children. Even the well-meaning doctor who treats Mrs Gordon for cancer harms her by dishonest reassurance.

January and Isabel are the truth-seekers. One is destroyed by her inability to blind herself so as to avoid intolerable pain; the other, born luckier, achieves an existence of purpose and integrity. Both, equally, are heroines.
  Frances Hill, The Times


2 A harrowing novel about the miserable lives of a family of army children abused by their father. Set in a bleak army community on the Moray Firth in 1959, it follows the fate of two sisters — Prue, a bright, bookish girl desperate to escape, and January, equally desperate, but trapped by the savage hatred of her father and the complicity of her indifferent family. Through Prue's friendship with Isabel, the local rector's daughter, January glimpses another, gentler, world, but Isabel's family has its own problems, and January's victimisation is unremitting. A powerfully written book.
  Independent on Sunday


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