I have heard Sandi Toksvig speak on several occasions. She did a comedy set at a benefit I attended in West London some years ago but it has been her talks about her books that have interested me most. Last year, I went to hear her talk about the importance of history and the influences on her book ‘Valentine Grey’.
The story is about identity and the courage it takes to be yourself within a society that expects traditions to be respected and all behaviour to be within the norm. So here we have a young woman who dreams of adventure and travels to Southern Africa to take part in the Boer War and a young man whose love of another man is doomed from the start. Valentine comes into her own when she takes on a male persona to join the army while Reggie remains on the edge of society because of his love for Frank. The book switches from one story to the other with a few overlaps, leaving us to make the connections between the different types of struggle.
Sandi Toksvig is clever enough to give us, in Valentine Grey, a protagonist who sees life on both sides of the Boer War. Finding herself on the ‘other side’ may be an accident but it is a clever device for ensuring we see different points of view.
So, we have a book about struggles of all types; the struggle for a homeland, the struggle to express love freely and the struggle to break free of gender restrictions.
In her talk, Sandi Toksvig spoke about individuals whose lives acted as an inspiration to us in modern times. In her novel she has created two characters who, despite being underdogs, remind us that not everyone thinks it is acceptable to treat black people, women and gays as second class citizens.
The front cover of the paperback version is superior to the hardback edition, in my view. The sense of the type of book is changed completely. Whereas the hardback makes the book seem comic, the paperback image has more mystery to it.