The Silent Hours | Cesca Major | 2015 | Corvus | 310p | Review copy | Buy the book
In 1952 Adeline is a refugee inside a nunnery in south-west France. She has been cared for there for several years and in all that time Adeline has not said a word. Left mute by a past trauma, and with memories of that trauma all but robbed from her, Adeline is nearing the end of her stay. The nuns have run out of ways to help her. But one young nun perseveres, coaxing Adeline to remember and to recover her voice and, with it, herself. Piece by piece, sparks of memories flash before her eyes and we slowly learn what happened to Adeline.
As war breaks out in Europe, Isabelle is in love. She’s fallen for Sebastien, a young banker who cannot believe his good fortune that this beautiful, happy young woman should have chosen him. Sebastien is Jewish but this is Limoges, outside occupied France. He cannot believe that the war will touch him or his family here. He and Isabelle will have a glorious future. But there is a cloud shadowing Isabelle – her brother Paul is a soldier fighting the Germans and his letters bring the reality of war terrifyingly close.
Tristan is a nine-year-old boy whose family fled from Paris to the countryside of southern France as the Germans marched in. Unable to understand entirely what war means, he witnesses an atrocity on the road south that will make him determined to do everything he can to end the war as soon as possible so that he and his family can return to Paris and everything will be as it once was.
Lots of lives, some lived close together, others just touching, but all linked by this little area of rural, quiet France that wants to believe it will never be touched by war. In The Silent Hours, Cesca Major brings the stories of these people to the fore, moving between them, incorporating letters and memories, building a portrait of a vulnerable community that is not just as risk from the Nazis but also from within. Fear of war infiltrates this society and it’s all too easy to turn that fear against the most vulnerable. Not all, though. Many stay strong and prefer to hope.
Written in the present tense throughout, but moving to and fro between the war and 1952, The Silent Hours is an immediate and intensely powerful read. I’m not a big fan of present tense in historical novels but it works very well here, somehow denying the villagers knowledge about anything but the present. It also means that this is not an entirely dark novel, despite its subject matter and its relentless march towards the event that traumatised Adeline. Isabelle and Sebastien are allowed their time in love, Tristan is allowed to be a child, and village life continues with all of its daily cares, celebrations and concerns. It is beautifully done. Cesca Major writes so well. I was mesmerised.
I initially didn’t read this novel earlier in the year because I assumed it was a romance. I was mistaken. There’s a romance in it but that’s as far as it goes. This is powerful and rich storytelling. It is increasingly disturbing and troubling, and, finally, utterly harrowing. It is full of intimate portraits of people caught in a moment of history. It is impossible not to become involved and it is also very hard to put this book down. I read it in one glorious sitting, appropriately enough on Remembrance Sunday. I’ve been to the places portrayed here and know the history. Cesca Major does them justice and The silent Hours will be a novel I’ll remember for a long time.