If You Go Away | Adele Parks | 2015 | Headline | 477p | Bought copy | Buy the book
In the spring of 1914, Vivian Foster had little to worry about other than the cut of her dress, the fullness of her dance card and the moment at which her beau Nathaniel will choose to pop the highly anticipated and much expected question. But all that is about to change when Vivian, one of the most beautiful and charming girls of her season, makes a foolish mistake. Stricken with embarrassment and with little money in the family coffers, Vivian’s parents urgently seek out a suitable husband for their wayward daughter. Aubrey Owens is perfect. A quiet man whose family only recently made their fortune, Aubrey would never have presumed to chase such a catch but now she is caught without him having to raise a finger. Vivian and Aubrey marry on the day that the Great War breaks out. It seems fitting to Vivian that on this day of compromise the rest of Britain should be distracted, their attention focused elsewhere.
Howard Henderson is a celebrated playwright, leading a charmed, fashionable life in London when war breaks out. But then, for the first time in his life, Howard understands that he is different from everyone else, that he has principles he didn’t quite expect to find and that he will pay the ultimate price for them if he has to. Howard does not want to fight. He has no religious grounds not to, he simply doesn’t want to kill or be killed. But Howard, like most conscientious objectors, is no coward. He travels to France as a journalist to record life and death on the Front for a year. The appalling horrors that he sees, smells and feels change his life forever. He returns to England determined never to be a part of this war, no matter the cost. Until he meets Vivian, the young wife who lives alone in the grand house in his mother’s village while her officer husband makes a name for himself in the throes of war. These two young people carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Together they stand a chance. If only the war and society will allow it.
If You Go Away is, without doubt, one of the most enchanting and captivating novels that I’ve read in a long time. The wonderful author leads us in gently, almost under false pretences, as we are introduced to the vain and privileged Vivian. But it’s easy to forget how young she is when her dreams revolve around making the perfect marriage. When her plans all go awry we slowly get to know another Vivian, one with few friends, a family that has lost all interest in her, and a husband who might admire his wife’s beauty but values her little more than he does any other attractive possession. Not that he is to blame for this any more than Vivian was to blame for her self-obsession – Aubrey and Vivian are the products of their time and that time is changing.
If You Go Away alternates between the stories of Vivian and Howard, chapter by chapter, but if you were to ask me which of the two narratives I preferred, I would not be able to answer. I loved both of these people, more and more as we get to know them better, as the war closes in around them, as they mature and learn what they want, as they love the people who need them, as they face the harsh morality of society and the utterly monstrous reality of war. The novel cleverly and movingly changes as the the years of war progress until the reader is completely wrapped up in the lives of Vivian and Howard, and those closest to them, including Aubrey.
The contrast between life on Vivian’s country estate and death in the trenches of France is powerfully evoked within these pages. Adele Parks treats them both with deep empathy and care. I was moved to tears repeatedly as this novel worked its magic on me. I wanted to do nothing but read it. The writing is beautiful, deceptively light in places, harrowing and tragic in others. I devoured If You Go Away one glorious weekend and, on finishing it, I immediately went out and bought Spare Brides. Adele Parks is a stunning storyteller and I am so glad she has turned her considerable talent to historical fiction. All I can do is ask for more.