A wonderful book told from the perspective of a child, Not All Tarts Are Apple by Pip Granger (Poisoned Pen Press, 2002) is set in London in 1953, which was awash with excitement over the approaching coronation of Queen Elizabeth. No one was more thrilled than 7-year-old Rosie, who lived in Soho with her Aunt Maggie and Uncle Bert. She did not remember a time when she did not live with them above the café they ran on a street with an Italian delicatessen, a fortune teller, a prostitute, and a gambling lawyer, all of whom were café regulars. Rosie, with her blonde curls and blue eyes, was considered a Princess Anne look-alike, which annoyed her as the princess was younger than Rosie was. She was doted on by all of the neighborhood residents and accustomed to a good bit of coddling.
Rosie came to realize, through the taunting of her classmates, that the heavy drinking lady with the fabulous perfume who visited occasionally was her mother. She didn’t want to live with her mother but appreciated her visits, especially when they went to the bookstores on Charing Cross Road, where Rosie learned to love to read. She also loved Maggie and Bert and the cast of vibrant characters who lived nearby and was happiest when she was with them.
A wrinkle in their uneventful lives was created by a stranger who began watching the café. Inquiry by one of the neighbors elicited the information he was waiting for the Perfumed Lady, Rosie’s mother. The whole street was made uneasy by the man’s more or less constant presence and his search for what seemed to be an ordinary sex worker with a drinking problem. When his attention shifted to Rosie herself, their disquiet escalated to alarm.
This is a satisfying happy story with a lively description of Soho and its colorful denizens in the 1950s, where people tired of rationing and restrictions were beginning to enjoy life again. Despite the light-heartedness, incest, assault, theft, blackmail, and kidnapping figure prominently in the plot. The naïve voice of the narrator Rosie provides much of the humor as a counterbalance to what could have been in other hands a rather grim tale. This is the first of four books about the East End of London in the 1950s based on the author’s childhood. It won the initial Harry Bowling Prize for Fiction in 2000.