To look at Miss Georgina Carter you would never have suspected that a woman of her age and character would have allowed herself to be so wholeheartedly mixed up with an Ifrit. For Georgina Carter was nearing fifty (she was forty-seven to be exact) and there was something about her long, plain face, her long upper lip, her long, thin hands and feet that marked her very nearly irrevocably as a spinster.
I had hoped to fit in three Dean Street Press books during December, thinking they would be quick, easy, comfort reads. The two I did read – Miss Carter and the Ifrit and Spam Tomorrow were indeed easy, comfort reads, but they were not quick. The stories were so delicious, I savoured every moment with them, stringing out my reading sessions to keep them with me as long as possible.
Miss Carter and the Ifrit, as the title suggests, is a fantasy novel – complete with a genie in a bottle and wishes coming true. But it was much more than extravagant feasts in the middle of a wartime famine and intercontinental travel in the blink of an eye. Joe, the Ifrit (so named by Miss Carter in honour of WWII ally, Joseph Stalin) was on a mission to become a good Ifrit as Miss Carter grappled with ways of using Joe’s abilities to end the war.
An ifrit (also spelt as efreet, afrit, and afreet) was a powerful demon from Islamic mythology. The were often associated with the underworld and identified with the spirits of the dead. I had never heard the name before, but apparently they are mentioned in some of the stories in One Thousand and One Nights.
One of the tricks in writing this kind of fantasy is getting the reader to suspend their disbelief. Within just a few pages, I was there, totally along for the ride. In I Dream of Jeannie-style there were many moments when Joe was almost discovered or his desire to please risked exposure or censure. There were many misunderstandings when a long-lost love interest suddenly reappeared. While Joe’s attempt to gather information on Hitler sadly revealed that Hitler also had his very own powerful Ifrit by his side. An Ifrit still choosing to work on the dark side.
There was only time I didn’t feel kinship with Miss Carter. Tucked away towards the end of the story, during plans to visit Miss Carter’s nephew, Henry, convalescing in Canada, Joe ponders wistfully on the demise of the Manitou as Miss Carter rabbits on about white explorers. Miss Carter may have been insensitive to the impact of colonisation and the fate of First Nation peoples, but the Ifrit, and Susan Alice Kerby had other ideas.
Susan Alice Kerby was born Alice Elizabeth Burton in Cairo, 4 October 1908, grew up in Windsor, Ontario and studied in Rome. In 1935 she married John Theodore Aitken. There’s not a lot more detail to be found on the interweb. After her divorce she ended up in England for good around 1936. According to the Introduction by Elizabeth Crawford, she lived at 23 Abbey Road, St John’s Wood during and after WWII, making her a ‘neighbour’ of Miss Georgina Carter. She wrote five comic/fantasy novels under the name Susan Alice Kerby, and her historical writing under Elizabeth Burton. She lived with Lilian Désirée Grotrian until her death in 1990.
Miss Carter and the Ifrit was a delight from start to finish. The rest of the Furrowed Middlebrow list has a lot to live up to!
Title: Miss Carter and the Ifrit Author: Susan Alice Kirby ISBN: 9781913054311 Imprint: Furrowed Middlebrow (FM37) Published: August 2019 (originally published January 1945) Cover Design: detail from Business as Usual (c 1945-7) Bertram Howitt-Lodge Format: Paperback Pages: 212 Dates Read: 13 December 2022 - 18 December 2022
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.