The Edge of the Fall | Kate Williams | 2015 | Orion | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book
The Edge of the Fall follows directly on from last year’s The Storms of War. If you don’t want to know what happened in the first book then please stop here. The repercussions of The Storms of War are keenly felt in The Edge of the Fall.
The First World War is over and life will never be the same for the de Witt family. While daughter Celia volunteered as an ambulance driver in France and her brother Michael lost his life fighting for the British, the family’s German roots cast a shadow over the de Witts that will last far longer than the years of war. Michael’s father Rudolph was interred for the duration, his wife Verena, humiliated, aged beyond her years while waiting for his return. Now that the war is over, Celia cannot return to her previous life. No longer a child, she wants to move away from the family country home of Stoneythorpe and live in London, with her sister and brother-in-law if she has to, and keep alive the flame within her that was lit during the Great War.
Excitement comes to Stoneythorpe in the unexpected arrival from abroad of the de Witt’s eldest son, Arthur, a stranger barely there through The Storms of War. About the same time, Louisa, an orphaned niece and heiress arrives. It seems inevitable that the glamorous Arthur and the beautiful sad Louisa should turn to each other. Celia can do little else but watch, envy and feel more isolated than ever. This is a family with secrets, some revealed in The Storms of War, with more to emerge. Celia feels like her little life is in danger of losing all meaning entirely. In London she believes she can find herself. But life is about to make another leap into uncertainty and chaos – while Celia’s own future is to take an entirely unpredictable path. There is also another great scandal on the horizon, this time involving Arthur and Louisa. War changed everything for the de Witts and it seems that peace time will be no less dangerous.
The Storms of War was one of my favourite historical fiction reads of 2014 – I love a good saga set during the First World War and early decades of the 20th century (I am a Downton nut, after all). It’s one of those transitional periods that draws me in – the end of one world, the emergence of the next, and a particularly testing time for women whose roles (at least for the wealthy) were in a state of flux. Of course, life would have gone on much as usual for poor women, except minus a son or a husband. I was so pleased to read The Edge of the Fall and return to the world – and characters – that Kate Williams has recreated so invitingly.
The Edge of the Fall focuses on a great mystery involving Louisa but the main character is Celia. We spend much of the novel in her company, away from Stoneythorpe when she can manage it, visiting her relatives in a much altered Germany and creating an independent life in London, one that attracts more than its own fair share of scandal. Much of the drama, though, is preserved for Louisa and Arthur, and a considerable portion of the novel moves from Celia’s story to Louisa’s, moving back and forth through events, providing another perspective to Celia’s sometimes prejudiced or subjective version of events. As the stories in both narratives merge, they culminate in an intriguing and tense final third of the novel, that none of the characters could have imagined at its opening.
Arguably, The Edge of the Fall is missing the most significant element that made The Storms of War such a compelling and emotional read – the Great War. Although the war continues to overshadow lives, its absence is felt. Celia and Michael’s experiences on the front were vital parts of the previous novel but now Celia’s unhappiness and inability to settle seem much more childish and selfish. For the first half of the novel at least Celia is not as likeable as she was before and this, combined with missing the drama of the war, did affect my response to The Edge of the Fall. As a result, the pace is significantly slower, particular in the middle. I had no time at all for Arthur. It’s impossible not to feel something for Louisa (and Celia’s poor parents), but it’s clear from the outset that the cloud hanging over her head will never shift. I found the interlude in Germany fascinating, however, and Celia’s mix of German and English heritage is a theme I look forward to seeing develop in the next novel.
Kate Williams is obviously a successful historian but she is also, in her fiction, a fine observer of behaviour and character. While Celia might irritate on occasion there is no doubt that she feels very alive on the page, as do the novel’s locations, especially London of the early 1920s, a time that might have been roaring for some but definitely not for all – especially not for the de Witts. This is an attractive series and, although this book, for me, fell short of the first, I will be interested to see what happens in the next.
The Storms of War