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One Afternoon

by Siân James
Persephone book no:

146 147 148

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781910263372

People often ask how we choose our books. This one we found because the Welsh writer Siân James died, the Guardian ran an obituary of her, and we liked the sound of her work. So we read all twelve novels and One Afternoon (1975), her first, was our favourite.

We partly admire One Afternoon because it is something unusual for us – a love story. Yes, yes, lots of books are about love (Someone at a Distance, Patience, Heat Lightning are in a Forsterian / Dorothy Canfield Fisher sense all about love) but we have never managed an actual love story, a book which could be a Mills and Boon in plot yet is far, far more than that. We are reminded of our dear friend Eva Ibbotson (whose books we recommend all the time and who told us about her mother Anna Gmeyner’s novel Manja), saying that she wrote for ‘highly intelligent women who have the flu.’

This certainly applies to Siân James’s novel One Afternoon, for in one sense it is a comfortable, easy read (flu). But this is where the intelligence comes in: the writing is phenomenal – perceptive and clever, marvellous about children, and path-breaking (when the heroine’s lover leaves her and she is pregnant, she has no qualms about bringing up a new baby as well as the three children she already has by her first husband). 

As Susan Hill wrote in The Times in 1975: ‘One Afternoon is... a quiet, gentle book, full of insight and truth... It is about passion, but not simply that; about the many varieties and degrees of human love, filial, maternal, spiritual, sexual, friendly. It is, above all, about that pre-eminently difficult achievement, self-love. I learnt a great deal from this lovingly created, carefully worked-out book, and greatly admired the control, elegance and occasional moments of real beauty of Siân James’s prose. The two last, short paragraphs moved me to tears.’

The preface to One Afternoon is by Emma Schofield, the editor of the Welsh Arts Review. She writes ‘One Afternoon may be a love story, but it is also a story of love that has all the odds stacked against it, of a relationship which is complex and bound up in the rapidly changing social landscape of the time… There is an energy and rawness to the writing here which is remarkable both in its honesty and within its social context… Thus the reality of social and political issues is everywhere in [James's] fiction.’ Emma Schofield concludes by commending the ‘bravery of the author in writing the book and the skill with which she is able to write so subtly, yet so politically.'

One Afternoon is precisely what we want a Persephone book to be: intensely readable and unputdownable but about many, many things, telling the reader about life, getting them thinking, pointing out things of which they had perhaps not been aware; and, in the end, being far, far more than the sum of its parts.


'Kazak', a Collier Campbell furnishing fabric designed for Liberty by Sarah Campbell and her sister Susan Collier in 1973 and manufactured in 1977. An armchair covered in 'Kazak' is sometimes in the window of the Persephone Books shop.

Picture Caption

Siân James lived in the Vale of Evesham. 

Read What Readers Say

Gary Raymond in conversation with Francesca Rhydderch, ‘BBC Radio Wales’

‘One Afternoon’ is part love story, part exploration of lived trauma… [James’s] prose has such an energy to it - a very contemporary, modern feel - it doesn’t feel like it is nearly 50 years old… She writes with real passion and honesty… the way she writes about people, men and women, is beautifully done and reminds me greatly of Chekhov’s writing, very simple but clear and not afraid to go close up to people’s misery as well as their happiness…. She is so unafraid in the way she writes about topics that probably at the time women weren’t ‘meant’ to write about in novels: she writes really openly about sex, she describes a miscarriage in detail… And while it is not a comedy (although there are some very colourful characters who swarm around), it is full of wit… [James] gives us a great story, some lovely relationships between different characters, particularly Anna's relationship with her children, and much, much more, in what is a really rich debut novel…. wonderful.

A Persephone reader by email

I just wanted to share a note about how much I loved ‘One Afternoon’ by Sian James. My friend bought it for me as a birthday gift and I took it to Wales, started reading it and couldn’t put it down. We were actually staying not far from where Sian was born so it felt even more special to read it whilst there. I also loved the reference to Weston-Super-Mare and how many children were sick on the coach.. I used to live there so it made me really laugh… many people were sick on those day trip coaches!

Categories: Family Love Story Mothers Sex Woman and Home

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