Category Archives: Earlier 20th C

If You Go Away by Adele Parks

If You Go Away | Adele Parks | 2015 | Headline | 477p | Bought copy | Buy the book

If You Go Away by Adele ParksIn 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.

The Edge of the Fall by Kate Williams

The Edge of the Fall | Kate Williams | 2015 | Orion | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Edge of the Fall by Kate WilliamsThe 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.

Other review
The Storms of War

The Silent Hours by Cesca Major

The Silent Hours | Cesca Major | 2015 | Corvus | 310p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Silent Hours by Cesca MajorIn 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.

The Ends of the Earth by Robert Goddard (The Wide World 3)

The Ends of the Earth | Robert Goddard | 2015 | Bantam Press | 379p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Ends of the Earth by Robert GoddardIt is 1919 and, finally, the negotiations to settle the Great War are complete. Ambassadors and agents disperse from Paris back to their respective countries. Peace can ensue while, for some, the circumstances that will lead to a second war are underway. The balance of power has shifted; spies and double agents are rife; secrets are everything. But in the business of secrets lives count for very little indeed. Nobody knows that better than James ‘Max’ Maxted, the man who survived years as a pilot and then a prisoner of war but whose war really began when his father Sir Henry was murdered in Paris while attending the peace negotiations.

The Ends of the Earth completes Robert Goddard’s historical thriller trilogy, one of the most intricate and clever spy novels that I have read. You’d have to be bonkers to read The Ends of the Earth without having first read its predecessors, The Ways of the World and The Corners of the Globe. Although each of the novels, including this latest one, contain complete stages in Max’s hunt for the truth surrounding his father’s murder, each follows on directly from the one before. In fact, The Corners of the Globe effectively finished in mid-sentence, in the biggest cliffhanger that I’ve read (it made me grumble, I can tell you), but now, at last, my curiosity and impatience have been satisfied. If you’ve not read the earlier novels, then now is the perfect time to do so – the trilogy is complete! This will make life much easier for your memory – mine has had to struggle with remembering names and facts over the two years that I’ve read these three books – and it will mean that you can read them in one fell swoop. This by far the best way to appreciate this fantastic, incredibly clever story.

It isn’t easy to review the last book in a trilogy like this. I want to give nothing away and, as with the previous books, there are twists and turns, shocks and surprises, throughout. This is a lethal world. The stakes are enormous and so it’s not a surprise that a fair few people don’t survive to emerge on the other side. What I can say is that in this novel, as expected, the action moves from Paris to what would have indeed felt like the ends of the Earth – Japan. In the early 20th century, Japan would have seemed an exotic, almost alien, land to Max, Sam, Malory and Schools. Having brought 1919 Paris and England and Scotland to life in the first two books, Robert Goddard now achieves the same with Japan. It’s a mesmerising portrait, violent and sinister as well as beautiful and kind.

The Ends of the Earth is rather different from the previous two novels. It all feels much more personal – I won’t tell you why. There are also elements to the story which are particularly distressing and tragic. As noted in The Corners of the Globe, Max is not the man he once was. He has been totally changed during his transformation into a spy. He knows it, too.

The plot is as deliciously complicated as before but by this stage the lines are more clearly drawn, the enemy stepping out from the shadows. Action is what matters now and when it comes it is so thrilling and tense. At last, everything comes to a head and it is utterly compelling.

In an ideal world I would have preferred all three books to have been published in one volume – this would have maintained the momentum from start to finish – but there are small recaps along the way and they do help. I’ve waited for The Ends of the Earth for many months now and it is everything I wanted. I cannot praise Robert Goddard’s skill enough – this is a masterful historical spy thriller but it is more than that. It is a portrait of the world in the aftermath of a devastating war; countries emerge in new forms, constructed and deconstructed by intelligence networks that cross the planet. Human lives have paid the cost for this transformation but some of the greatest tragedies, the ones that emerge here, are the quiet ones and the results of these will last for generations. The Wide World is an outstanding trilogy, Max a remarkable hero, and I heartily recommend it.

Other reviews
The Ways of the World
The Corners of the Globe

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins | Kate Atkinson | 2015 (7 May) | Doubleday | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

A God in Ruins by Kate AtkinsonTwo years ago, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life caused a stir that still continues. This week, its companion novel A God in Ruins is published. These two novels complement each other, you don’t need to have read one to enjoy the other, but if you have read Life After Life and you loved its tale of Ursula Todd, then I think there’s a good chance that you will be blown away by this new story of her brother Teddy. I enjoyed Life After Life very much, finding it extremely clever, but it engaged my heart far less than my head. I expected something similar from A God in Ruins. I was in for a shock. A God In Ruins turned out to be one of the most emotionally powerful novels I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I have no hesitation in declaring that it will be a contender for my top novel of 2015. If you loved Life After Life, even if you just liked it as I did, you will adore A God in Ruins.

This review is not an easy one to write. While we are familiar with some of the characters who return from Life After Life, the emotional impact of A God in Ruins relies on you knowing as little as possible about it when you begin. So, instead of giving anything away, this review aims to tell you something of why it has left such a significant and, I am confident, lasting impression on me.

In Life After Life, Ursula Todd lives a succession of alternate lives, each one ending in a different way, time or place, but always resulting in yet another rebirth, a new life living another possibility. Her younger brother, World War II bomber pilot and countryside poet, Teddy, featured incidentally but memorably in several of these lives. In A God in Ruins, we have Teddy’s story – one life but not told in a conventional manner. The novel moves through Teddy’s life, jumping backwards and forwards, chapter by chapter, but also within chapters. The story is told by a wise narrator who leaves clues to future, present and past, as we learn to know Ted Todd very well indeed, as we do everyone else in his life. The narrative moves between generations, different perspectives of the same event are provided, memories come and go, places are visited and revisited. It is organic and whole. A God in Ruins is a brilliantly structured novel, its strands knitted together expertly, beautifully.

A God in Ruins lulled me into a false sense of security. It moved gently as it invited me, the reader, to want to get to know Teddy, introducing me to a young child describing nature to his glamorous, rather eccentric aunt Izzy on a meandering country walk, before moving me on with a jolt to another generation in a much different time. But slowly and surely, everything begins to knot together and that is when the heart becomes engaged and emotions start to build. I loved Teddy – not just the child but the man he becomes, so much so that I am tearful even thinking about him!

Just like Life After Life, A God in Ruins is a novel about war. Teddy’s experiences as a pilot of Halifax bombers colours his entire life, affecting every relationship, and we are immersed in the depths of pain and turmoil that hide in Teddy’s heart.

I’m not going to tell you here about what happens to Teddy, or about any of the people who move through this novel and Teddy’s life – each of them will grab hold of you, your feelings towards them will change, you will care deeply, maybe even dislike one or two of them intensely. But I will say that one of the reasons that I loved this book so much is because it made me think deeply about how little we might really know about those we love, how rewarded we would be if we dug a little, even if it also hurt a bit. The themes here are huge – life can be short; it is important to live that life fully and well.

A God in Ruins is a melancholic novel, it has scenes that are extremely upsetting, the more so because Kate Atkinson has the gift of making us care about her characters. But there are many light moments, humorous phrases, which contribute to the novel’s intense sense of being about the lives of real people. The relationships in it are complex and so believable and recognisable. The dialogue is spot on. All linked by the knowing, compassionate and very human voice of our author’s persona.

At the heart of this remarkable, wonderful book, though, is Teddy – I’m struggling to think of any other character in a novel I’ve felt so drawn to. Prepare to laugh and cry – and possibly cry an awful lot – as you get to know this man as he lives through his life, teaching us as he goes about what the years have taught him about home, love, family, war, nature, duty and death. I am overwhelmed.

Other review
Life After Life

Serpents in the Cold by Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy

Publisher: Mulholland Books
Pages: 387
Year: 2015 (29 January)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Serpents in the Cold by Thomas O'Malley and Douglas Graham PurdyReview
It is 1951 and winter has gripped the city of Boston in a vice. These are dark times for the city. The post-war years have left the streets in decline, the residents depressed, the politicians as corrupt and violent as the gangsters who control the city’s businesses. Even the streets themselves are up for sale, whole neighbourhoods sold to the highest bidder for demolition, communities destroyed by dirty deals. It is a year since the Great Brink’s Robbery, the largest robbery in US history, its proceeds lost in the unhappy streets. And now in this brutal winter which has locked Boston in ice, a serial killer is loose.

Two children walking their dog along the bay discover the remains of the latest victim, a young woman, her throat slit, her body frozen. In life the woman was Sheila Anderson, the sister-in-law of Dante Cooper, a man trying to reclaim his life from drugs and debt to thugs. Dante’s closest friend, Cal O’Brien, used to be a police detective but now, damaged by his war experiences, he runs a respectable private security business. But now both men have one thing on their minds – justice for Sheila. Going undercover, the two men become vigilantes, digging deep into Boston’s secrets, discovering that there is much more to fear than a serial killer. For every discovery they make, the risks soar and the cost becomes ever more dear.

Serpents in the Cold is a historical mystery that manages to consume the reader, pulling him or her into this dangerous world that is little removed from us in time but is a world away in so many ways. The atmosphere is close and claustrophobic. The city feels almost like an island with everyone trapped inside it. Boston’s criminals flourish in all levels of society. It feels unclean. The ice and the cold are bitterly felt. This is a chilly novel indeed. It’s as if everyone is waiting for the ice to melt so that they can make their escape from this trap that is prowled by conmen, gangsters and murderers. It’s not just the serial killers who kill, though. There’s a strong sense that police are losing control and that they need the help of Cal and Dante to solve these murders but Cal and Dante are not your typical detectives.

This is an extremely noir-y and violent novel, reflecting the violent times. The authors pull no punches. At times it is shocking, building up to a climax that is both edge of the seat and disturbing. Cal is haunted by horrors and they come and go through the pages. For Dante, his nightmares are in the present. The story of his marriage is harrowing and we can understand why it means so much that he find justice for his wife’s sister.

As the novel proceeds, we are guided through Boston’s underworld, introduced to its businessmen and politicians, its thugs, and those who are trying to live an honourable life, caring for families, looking after those worse off. Sheila becomes more and more crucial and, although a murder victim, she has a presence throughout the book. Adding to the atmosphere and the strong presence of Boston itself as a central character, the book contains several contemporary photographs of the city in 1951.

There are no tidy resolutions in Serpents in the Cold. There’s a sense from the very beginning that things are going to get nasty and they don’t disappoint. Holding it all together are the charismatic figures of Dan and Cal, each with their own problems and resolutions, but each bringing hope to the novel through the force of their friendship and their dedication to pursue justice, however dirty it gets.

Melnitz by Charles Lewinsky

Publisher: Atlantic Books
Pages: 634
Year: 2006, this English trans. 2015 (5 February)
Buy: Large Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Melnitz by Charles LewinskyReview
First published in 2006 in Switzerland, this is a review of the English translation of Melnitz to be published by Atlantic Books at the beginning of February.

In 1871, a knock at the door of cattle-dealer Salomon Meijer changes the life of the entire Meijer family. But this will not be for the last time. Over a period of almost seventy years, strangers enter the lives of this family, sometimes with the most unpromising of entrances, but always they transform it, bringing love, marriage, business opportunities and, often disturbingly, news of life beyond the island of Switzerland.

Anti-Semitism is well-established and a part of everyday life in central Europe in 1871, although some prefer to keep it hidden, with both Jews and non-Jews maintaining a polite distance, curious and puzzled by the customs and habits of the other. But over the course of these seventy years, all this is changed by the rise of National Socialism. The Meijer family is luckier than most, safe in neutral Switzerland but, while Switzerland becomes a sanctuary for the lucky few to escape Germany, the Meiers are not alone in feeling under threat. Not all of them are safe. And whispering in their ears the entire time, through all the years of love, marriages, disappointments, achievements, births and deaths, is the voice of Uncle Melnitz, the man who dies over and over again, his sole job to remind his kin of the plight of the Jews, to take the edge off every moment of happiness, to forewarn and tease.

Melnitz is a grand family saga covering five generations of the Meijer family and divided into four sections: 1871, 1893, 1913 and 1937. When the story begins, Janki arrives on the doorstep of Salomon (to whom he is complicatedly related) half-dead and a refugee of the Franco-Prussian War. Janki is French and as he revives and is adopted into this family, stirring up the two young women of the house, he brings about his dream of opening a shop to sell the finest Parisian fabrics. But Janki is not only a Frenchman he is also a Jew and it takes time and trouble for his life to become established. As we follow Janki and his family we watch Janki endure increasing prejudice until one event happens in particular that will almost rob him from these pages. This is a true power of Melnitz – the characters engage us with their daily lives, their small adventures and their little achievements but sometimes something will happen and that will snap these people right back into their shells. Occasionally, characters will be inspired to undertake great acts of bravery – two stand out in particular, during the First World War and in the months leading to the Second – but some disappear into themselves. It is painful for us. We get to know these people. It’s difficult to watch them suffer.

Five generations come and go through the novel. Some characters stand out more than most, some disappear too soon, others prove themselves to be extraordinary while others are shown to be perfectly normal, living from day to day, engaged with their family and/or business. But then they get a jolt – the arrival of another outsider, and the small world of Switzerland is expanded once more. Repeatedly, though, there are shocking reminders of what the Jew must suffer. One can dress the same as everyone else, even undergoing baptism, but everyone will always know – a Jew is always a Jew.

I am such a fan of family sagas. I love to become involved with people through decades of time, watching them change and, hopefully, meet their just desserts, whether for good or bad. This novel is a little different because you know that events are underway that are outside the characters’ control and the shadow of National Socialism is about as dark as a shadow can get. Melnitz appealed for all these reasons and it was a compelling read. It is a very substantial book, beautifully written, and it develops slowly. It is full of daily life, revealing the eccentricities of the characters – Salomon in particular is quite a character while Arthur, a 1930s doctor, is such an appealing figure, taking years – and many pages – to know himself. The female characters are slightly less well developed in my opinion but Chanele, Salomon’s adopted daughter who is no daughter, is wonderful. Throughout we are introduced to a veritable host of cameo figures who come and go, each leaving their mark. The pace is slow at times but it is by no means dull. The banter of conversation, the telling of events, relationships and foibles is done with such delicacy and wit. And now and again Uncle Melnitz adds the slightest breath of fantasy.

The narrative is interspersed throughout with Yiddish terms. I can understand why but I did find these a little tiresome after a while, despite the lengthy glossary at the back. There are an awful lot of them. There are also more typos and errors than I would expect – they probably only number a few but I found them very noticeable. The prose itself, though, is really rather beautiful in places, in words and in structure. The English translation by Shaun Whiteside is excellent.

While the first half of Melnitz seems to be all about establishing the family, its relationships, its village life and business aspirations, the second half is about the impact of the outside world on that life. This meant that, for me, the second half was a much faster read and I got drawn further and further into these lives. But the second half wouldn’t have had the emotional impact it had without the background lovingly laid down in the first. Melnitz is a rewarding, thoughtful read. It contains frequent moments of light, shining in an increasingly and frighteningly dark world.