European Mutilation


Paula Fox, venerated novelist and children’s book author, spent her youth as an involuntary nomad. Chapter titles of her 2001 memoir Borrowed Finery (Henry Holt) include “Long Island,” “Cuba,” and “Hollywood”—destinations selected by her well-meaning grandmother and all but indifferent parents. This slim sequel reveals that in her early twenties, Fox, obeying inertia, continued her itinerant ways in postwar Europe, where she wrote human-interest stories for a small British news service. The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe retraces her roamings with the same unflappable narrative voice that distinguished her previous volume. Among chapters here are “Paris” and “London Again”; she also alights on a Polish-run camp for child Holocaust survivors and the homes of relatives in Spain. Punctuated with grainy black-and-white photographs, this memoir summons a lost era without indulging in nostalgia.

Winter skimps radically on background (for that, see Borrowed Finery). In measured, ascetic prose, Fox distills a series of memories, not fussing much about her life before or since. She recalls whimsical images: strolling Parisians with decapitated baguettes, first bites promptly taken, for the freshness “or simply because to do so was a Parisian habit.” Nevertheless, she declares, “the old life of Paris was gone.” At the residence for Holocaust orphans, stunted children grasp at the hands of visiting journalists, then wave tirelessly at their withdrawing bus. In Spain, Fox encounters the victims of Franco’s regime. Her great-uncle was beaten for a “treasonable letter”; a fellow train passenger is en route to visit an inmate in a “prison village” near Valencia. Indeed: This Europe appears mutilated rather than liberated. It’s Fox who finds liberation. She credits her voyage with “freeing me from chains I hadn’t known were holding me, showing me something other than myself.” What lingers is the taste of being 23 years old and at large in a broken but dazzling world.

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