Category Archives: Earlier 20th C

No Man’s Land by Simon Tolkien

No Man’s Land | Simon Tolkien | 2016 | HarperCollins | 566p | Review copy | Buy the book

No Man's Land by Simon TolkienIt’s hard to imagine a more appropriate date to post a review of No Man’s Land than today, 1 July 2016, the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, which forms the powerful, overwhelming heart of this wonderful novel.

In the first years of the 20th century, Adam Raine struggles to thrive in the face of poverty, reinforced by tragedy. He experiences London at its worst, and is even threatened by its worst as the workhouse beckons from the shadows. Adam and his politically militant father have no choice but to head for the pit village of Scarsdale in Yorkshire where they have relations among the oppressed miners. Adam is an intelligent young man and his father is determined that he should have every chance – under the sky and not in the lethal depths of the pit. But yet again the fates conspire against Adam, marking him always as an outsider. Later, when Adam finally feels hope on earning his scholarship to Oxford, it is to be short lived. It is 1914 and England is at war and nothing will ever be the same again.

It’s as if everything in Adam’s life is leading up to the Somme in July 2016. His friendships with the young miners, as well as with the son of the pit owner who lives in the big house, lead up to their dependence on each other in the trenches, resulting so many times in grief and pain. So few who go over the top will survive, or at least emerge unscathed in body and mind. But it also affects Adam’s great love. He fell in love at first sight with Miriam, the village parson’s daughter, but is that relationship able to withstand the trauma of war, especially with the pit owner’s youngest son Brice so ready to snatch the prize?

No Man’s Land is a substantial novel and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Big themes and big emotions are served best by a novel that the reader can immerse themselves in over several days and there is a lot going on here. It features several distinct sections, although these can really be abbreviated to before the war and during the war. The Adam who fights in the trenches has very little in common with his earlier self but that doesn’t mean that his life before the war was drama-free. The sections inside the pit are as powerful as anything that follows during the war sections.

The writing is beautiful, sometimes deceptively simple and, as a result, packing an emotional punch of some size. I cried several times reading this, twice even while on the bus, and not all of those tears fell during the war sections. Great grief is experienced and expressed. The support,physical as well as emotional, of comrades is life-changing. And then there’s the horror of trench warfare and how utterly diabolical that is and we’re spared none of it. We get a tiny glimpse of the unbelievable stress and fear and it brings us so close to Adam and his brothers-in-arms.

I didn’t get along so well with the chapters that deal with the love affair between Adam and Miriam, nor did I care as much for the rivalry between Adam and the odious Brice. These chapters felt conventional and out of place when compared to the rest of the book and the characters of Miriam and Brice (and the dastardly footman) seemed two-dimensional in comparison to Adam, his father, the miners and their families, and Adam’s comrades. There are so many individual stories in these pages, families and people changed by events in the mine or in the trenches. They are all so memorable and colourful, at times heartbreakingly sad, occasionally amusing, but all very real. I much preferred the time spent on these people, their stories and their role in Adam’s changing character.

I love a grand saga that immerses me in the lives of people, their families and a community. No Man’s Land brings these together perfectly against a background of pitiless war and the injustice, hardship and cruelty of mining during the early 20th century. We spend time on the front and down the pit but contrasting with it always are memories of life continuing above ground or in the relative safety of the British countryside. These memories taunt the men that suffer but how they comfort them as well. Interestingly and movingly, there are occasional references in the novel to future events, informing us that Adam will look back on this time when he’s in France.

No Man’s Land has such a power to it and despite its themes and darkness is always such a pleasure to read, the pages turning themselves. It brings the events and sacrifice of 100 years ago to the forefront of our minds and straight to our hearts and reminds us that we must never forget.

The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

The Midnight Watch | David Dyer | 2016 (7 April) | Atlantic | 323p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Midnight Watch by David DyerIn the early hours of 15 April 1912 the unsinkable Titanic sank, a tragedy that the rest of the world was barely able to comprehend, particularly the United States and Great Britain, countries that bore a heavy load of its hundreds of lost souls. Telegraph communications from the Titanic and other vessels meant that journalists were ready and waiting in New York to greet the survivors to hear directly the story of the century. But efforts to contact the Titanic after 2am or thereabouts were met with silence. The unthinkable had happened. But even worse news was to follow. While the Carpathian risked ship and crew to pound through the ice to rescue the Titanic’s lifeboats, it had been too far away to rescue the hundreds floundering in the freezing water. But this shouldn’t have mattered. Another vessel from Britain, the Californian, had been within sight of the Titanic. It had seen its flares rocket into the sky, while in turn, survivors attested, the Californian had been spotted from the sinking Titanic. But the Californian moved not an inch towards the stricken Titanic and its desperate passengers.

The Midnight Watch investigates the great mystery of the California’s failure to help the Titanic from the point of view of two men – John Steadman, a (fictional) American journalist, and Herbert Stone, Second Officer aboard the California, who witnessed the rocket flares and informed his captain, Stanley Lord, not once but three times but Lord did nothing. Steadman’s newspaper wants him to follow the bodies, to witness the unloading of the famously lost and the tragically doomed from the Carpathian. But Steadman has the scent of a greater story. Confused accounts are surfacing from the Californian. Crew members speak of flares spotted and ignored while the captain maintains that these came from another vessel, not the Titanic. At the centre of the confusion lies Herbert Stone, a man sorely troubled and paying the price for his loyalty to his captain.

The novel moves between Steadman’s first person account of his investigation into Stone and his crew members, travelling from the United States court case to the one that took place later in England, and the third person telling of events aboard the Californian, focusing in particular on Stone and his devotion to a life at sea. But as the details emerge of the California’s failings, Stone’s almost ritualistic act of dropping his beloved copy of Moby Dick into the sea speaks volumes. This is a tragedy with a great reach.

Jack Steadman has compassion in him for everyone concerned. The Titanic killed and it also ruined lives for decades afterwards. And so we have the third part of the novel which brings alive, in Steadman’s ultimate account, one possible interpretation of the true story of the Sage family and here we can see that many factors contributed to the loss of so many people, especially the third class passengers.

It is this third and final section on the Sage family that put a lump in my throat. This was missing for much of the rest of the novel because above all else, despite Steadman’s compassion, The Midnight Watch is a fascinating but detached investigation into a tragedy. While we learn about the forces that drive Steadman on, especially his daughter, much of the novel feels like an intellectual exercise, a race between journalists to file the story first. It’s only as the novel digs deeper that Steadman feels driven to make known to the world the names of the people who were lost. This is not a novel that plays on sentiment.

The story of Herbert Stone is a much more painful one but I found it hard to feel any sympathy for him at all. This probably isn’t surprising because it’s unlikely he felt much for himself. But I did feel that Steadman’s compassion wasn’t much deserved.

Like many people, I’ve always felt a grim fascination for the Titanic and so I was drawn to The Midnight Watch. But this novel focuses on one of the biggest frustrations of the entire tragedy – the lack of action on the part of a vessel that could have saved most if not all of the lost – and this, for me at least, makes for depressing reading. And the subsequent section on the Sage family, while moving, is entirely without hope. Nevertheless, The Midnight Watch is a beautifully written novel, as well as being a stunning object in itself, and mixes fact and fiction in a compelling fashion. It makes good use of genuine court records of the day to provide another side to this terrible event, making it feel all the worse for being so avoidable. Although I did feel that the novel skimmed the surface of the tragedy, it’ll play on my mind for quite some time.

The English Girl by Katherine Webb

The English Girl | Katherine Webb | 2016 (24 March) | Orion Books | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The English Girl by Katherine WebbIt is 1958 and Joan Seabrook is about to fulfil her dream. Although she is about to make a very suitable marriage to Rory, Joan wants nothing more than to explore the Arabian desert, remembering her father’s bedtime stories about its myths and beauty as well as following in the footsteps of her heroine, Maude Vickery, who explored the region, almost losing her life in the process, in the early years of the 20th century. Events are about to take a precipitous turn. Joan’s soldier brother Daniel is stationed in Oman and her honorary uncle Robert Gibson is wazir – foreign minister – to Oman’s Sultan. Rory himself is keen on a visit and so Joan and her fiance arrive at Gibson’s Residency on the edge of the magnificent desert. The fact that the desert is forbidden to foreigners, its remoteness the subject of a civil war, makes it all the more enticing to this young woman who dreams of being the first to climb its mountains and follow in Maude’s footsteps across its formidable dunes.

Maude herself lives close to the Residency. A recluse, living quietly with her slave, dogs and pet gazelle, she has no desire to talk about the past when she made her extraordinary journey across the Empty Quarter of Arabia. But Joan has a way of inspiring others with her spirit, fed by both dreams and determination. Maude is nearing the end of her life and there is one thing that this redoubtable woman must do. But she can’t do it alone. Joan will have to help her and it takes her on a perilous path. But even though Joan is swept along by this thrilling adventure, Maude keeps the truth from her. The consequences of Maude’s plan will be horrendous and that is just as Maude intends. Vengeance is sweet.

The English Girl is such an appealing, evocative read. It presents dual narratives – Joan’s story in the 1950s and Maude’s own experiences in the early 1900s. Both stories are filled with adventure and set against the most stunning backdrop – the dunes and mountains of a great desert, populated by nomads and their camels, trod over by intrepid, idealistic western explorers, ruled by exotic sultans and now fought over by British soldiers and local warriors. As we follow both Maude and Joan across the desert we can almost feel the heat, the thirst, the sand in the eyes and the desperation, as well as the zeal. Above all else, we have the romance of the Arabian desert, the Lawrence of Arabia stark beauty of it all, which never dulls despite its pitiless danger.

There is a cast of characters to become involved with, in both time frames, with some characters appearing in both, altered by what has gone before. But while Maude’s life is one of infamous adventure, Joan is able to compete with it, and she is soon enchanted by the people that she meets, every bit as the scenery, including Maude’s slave, and the young man that Maude urges her to visit in secret. Contrasting with that we’re presented with the British inhabitants of the Residency, including Gibson’s wife who isn’t neglected as such, just under-used by society, as well as the British soldiers brought in to fight such a distant war. And then there’s Rory, Joan’s fiance. The story of Joan and Rory is an important part of the novel but while Rory is, rather predictably, shown as not being the perfect match for Joan, he’s not painted as a demon. Above all else, The English Girl is a warm and sympathetic novel that doesn’t like to blame too harshly.

I thoroughly enjoyed The English Girl. It’s one of those novels you could happily spend a whole day reading. It is light, and archaeology-free (unfortunately), and it does sentamentalise history – particularly the locals – but for me it captures the romance, excitement and thrill of an Edwardian and early 19th-century adventure, in the spirit of Agatha Christie’s archaeological investigations of Mesopotamia and Gertrude Bell’s famous explorations of Mesopotamia and Arabia, a woman who Katherine Webb tells us inspired her creation of Maude. While parts of the novel are idealised and not very likely, others are harsh – there is nowhere to hide when lost in a desert that wants to kill you and that desolation is captured here, as is the triumph of survival.

Above all else, Joan and Maude are both fascinating women. Inevitably in a dual narrative, one story tends to appeal more than the other, and here it is Maude’s tale that drew me in the most – and how could it not? It is a fantastic and shocking story – but the movement between the two drives the pace on and makes this quite a pageturner. The star of The English Girl, though, isn’t Maude, or Joan, or the men they love, it’s Arabia.

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

The Ballroom | Anna Hope | 2016 | Doubleday | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Ballroom by Anna HopeIt is 1911 and high on the Yorkshire Moors sits Sharston Asylum, a home for the insane. It is an immense institution, with long corridors, huge rooms and multiple kitchens and dormitories, ready to house and treat many hundreds of male and female patients. But its architect must have had some kind of vision of what life could be like inside these otherwise cheerless walls – an enormous ballroom, one hundred feet in length, adorned with stained glass, a ceiling panelled with gold.

Charles Fuller believes he has found the perfect job when he wins the post of medical assistant at the asylum, a role that is supposed to combine conventional treatment of the patients with the more unusual therapy of music. Every day, Charles plays for the patients, fitting ailments to their ideal restorative composer. Charles is a follower of eugenics. He believes that mankind can be improved genetically, but not necessarily through the sterilisation of the insane, but through the transformation of their minds by such an influence as music.

Ella is newly brought to the asylum, ‘sectioned’ for smashing a window in the mill where she has laboured for years. She just wanted some light, some air. But this rash act changes her life and now she must deal with the terrible consequences. When being assessed by Charles Fuller, she manages to flee, running for her life across the moor until she is inevitably caught at the feet of a working party from the asylum. John is among the group, digging graves for the anonymous and numerous dead. He has been a patient for years, made ill and misunderstood by grief. In that moment, something passes between Ella and John. From then on, each longs for those weekly evenings when for a brief time male and female patients are brought together within the ballroom and allowed to dance.

The Ballroom is a gently sad and melancholic novel, set in one of the grimmest of settings that nevertheless achieves an other worldliness, thanks to the extraordinary and unexpected ballroom as well as the author’s exquisite prose. The novel moves between three lives – Ella, John and Charles, probing beneath the ‘madness’ that has reduced Ella and John to this while highlighting that it’s not just the patients who could be accused of insanity. Charles is repressed, desperate to prove that he is among the superior of his race, while clearly fooling himself. His intentions are not all as they seem but, still, it’s hard to blame him entirely. The story of John in particular is heartbreaking and his pain looms over the novel. Ella’s frustration exists hand in hand with the novel’s depiction of the severity of life for the poor on these Yorkshire moors. For some, the asylum might be an escape, but what a terrible one.

Anna Hope presents a fascinating depiction of early 20th-century life for the poor, the ill, the oppressed and the unfortunate, while also scrutinising the hypocrisy of their ‘betters’. The world of the asylum itself is powerfully evoked, in detail and in atmosphere. The love affair between Ella and John is delicately and gently drawn, contrasting with the turmoil that exists in Charles’s mind. While The Ballroom did prove a little too bleak for me and didn’t immerse me to quite the same degree as its outstanding predecessor Wake, I can still appreciate the beauty of Anna Hope’s prose and the quality of her storytelling and strong sense of history. I look forward to seeing where Anna takes us next.

Other posts
A review of Wake
An interview with Anna Hope

In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie

In a Land of Paper Gods | Rebecca Mackenzie | 2016 | Tinder Press | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca MacKenzieHenrietta S. Robertson lives a childhood that is touched by magic. She spends her days in a boarding school, high on a misty, fabled mountain in China, with each part of its gardens, ravines and ponds given special names by the children, creating a remote, secret haven for the young and the imaginative, far from the world below. The children are almost all the sons and daughters of missionaries, parents who would prefer to bring the word of God to the bound feet women and their families than to care for their own children. They escort their offspring up the mountain on chairs carried by the local people and then leave them at the school, in some cases not seeing them again for years.

These are children who bridge two worlds and yet still manage to create for themselves a third. Henrietta, or Etta, has both English and Chinese names. She speaks both languages. But Etta and her friends, including Big Bum Eileen, all have something missing from their lives, not least an attachment to the world below. Led by Etta, they create a secret mystical society, a club of prophetesses, giving themselves new names and adopting mysterious powers, mixing their parents’ Christianity with the spiritualism of their home. But apart as they are, with few teachers to keep an eye on them, it isn’t long before they lose control and the resulting trauma has significant repercussions for Etta – the world she has built is about to collapse for ever. For this is 1941 and it seems that even the most remote part of China cannot escape Japan’s marching soldiers.

In a Land of Paper Gods is a compelling, captivating read. For much of it we are transported to a strange place indeed, experiencing it through the eyes and words of Etta. This is a child’s world but a child separated from her parents, living in an unusual beautiful, mystical place, surrounded by other children in a similar state, and teachers who form part of the family, despite their rules. But rules are there to be disobeyed. Visiting parents are viewed with wonder as is anybody who ventures up the mountain to the school. Mixing with Etta’s account are extracts from the diary of Muriel, one of the teachers and regarded by Etta as an aunt. It’s through Muriel that we keep our feet on the ground and realise just how far Etta and her friends have removed themselves.

This is a novel in two parts – the first two thirds take place on the mountain while, after many ominous signs, the final third throws us into the Second World War as we watch the impact of the Japanese army on the inhabitants of the school. For me, this is when In a Land of Paper Gods comes truly alive, Until then it had been a slightly remote, often humorous and charming, occasionally shocking tale of a lost children’s world. But in the final section reality hits like a hammer and I could not put it down. From that point on everything changes, reality is brutal, and now we see the past at the school in a whole new light. It is very cleverly done as well as powerful and totally gripping.

In a Land of Paper Gods is Rebecca Mackenzie’s debut novel and it’s a standout one. The author brings together two entirely separate worlds, one innocent and the other evil, and yet reveals that neither is entirely free of the other. And at its heart is the unforgettable Henrietta, a girl that we follow through it all, and she is a marvellous creation.

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

Crooked Heart | Lissa Evans | Black Swan | 2014 (Pb 2015) | 347p | Review copy | Buy the book

Crooked Heart by Lissa EvansNoel Bostock might be only ten years old but he’s lived an unusual life. An orphan, he was brought up by his strong-spirited godmother Mattie. Mattie was a suffragette and never one to obey the rules. Her disdain for authority – and education – most definitely rubbed off on her young charge as they lived their own way in Mattie’s large Hampstead house. Until Mattie began to lose her words and then her memories and finally her life. Noel was moved to the home of Uncle Geoffrey and Auntie Margery – not his relatives, but Mattie’s distant cousins – and, if war hadn’t have broken out in 1939, it’s likely that we would never have heard of Noel again. He would eventually have been squashed by this new regulated, cold life forced down on his shoulders. But war meant that Noel was evacuated to the relative safety of St Albans and it was there that he came under the care of Vee Sedge. A woman less suited to caring for a young evacuee would be difficult to imagine.

Noel continues, probably without knowing what he’s feeling, to grieve for Mattie. Vee has money problems – not to mention mother problems and son problems. When Vee decides to use Noel in her money-raising schemes she soon discovers that if anyone has the brains to make this work it’s not her, it’s Noel. And so begins the tale of an unusual partnership between two lonely people who have lost the ability to trust but aren’t going to take the world’s punches lying down.

Crooked Heart is a wonderfully fitting title for this warm, compassionate and humorous novel. In this wartime story, there is as much crookedness as there is heroism, probably much more. There is crime going on at these bombsites, the innocent are being exploited and there is no doubt that Mattie and Noel’s schemes are thoroughly dishonest, just like lots of other peoples. But there are ramifications, some good, some terrible, and it is these that shape the novel and the characters and relationship of Vee and Noel. We might not cheer on their plots and schemes but we grow to care very deeply indeed for this damaged pair of lovable rogues.

Lissa Evans’ writing is enchanting. It is deceptively light, the humour a joy but not overdone, contrasting with its moments of darkness and sadness. The character portraits are superb and not just Mattie and Noel’s. There are a host of people, villains and angels, who come and go through the pages and they all leave their mark, their own stories, their own worries, their dreams. I was particularly touched by the gently recurring theme of the suffragettes. The heroism and sisterhood of these women is a vital part of Noel’s growing up.

Noel is adorable. He might be a pain in the neck at times – and it did take me a little while to warm to him – but once the real Noel began to emerge I was completely captivated. During the second half of the novel in particular Noel comes into his own. Lissa Evans has created a treasure.

Crooked Heart is a fantastic portrait of London and its suburbs during the Blitz. You can really sense the fear as the sirens sound and men and women take their lives into their hands as they scramble through pitch black streets to safety or disaster. Putting a child into this lethal environment seems especially worrisome. But there is a strong feeling that everyone is out of their depth, not just the children. And alongside the little achievements are tragedies. Crooked Heart is an increasingly moving and intense novel that never loses its sense of humour. It is also incredibly difficult to put down. The pages fly through the fingers. Crooked Heart is an absolute delight.

The British Lion by Tony Schumacher

The British Lion | Tony Schumacher | 2015 | William Morrow | 450p | Review copy | Buy the book

The British Lion by Tony SchumacherIt is November 1946 and Britain is defeated, part of the German Third Reich, its government fled to the US, itself largely tolerant of Germany, and the exiled George VI replaced by Edward VIII. Life has been turned upside down and nobody exemplifies this more than the British Lion, John Rossett. Before the war Rossett was a detective, during the war he was a hero, earning the accolade of British Lion alongside his medals, but once the war was lost he became involved in rounding up Britain’s Jews, his only friend his Nazi commander, Major Ernst Koehler of the SS. Lying in a hospital bed, shot up, Rossett can no longer stomach his part in the Final Solution, wanting nothing more than to return to his life in London’s police force. That’s if the Nazis let him live. But everything stops when Koehler’s wife and daughter are snatched from a shop in London by American spies. Desperate, Koehler asks Rossett to help him, to follow the trail and demands left by the kidnappers and to find his family.

What follows is a tense cat and mouse chase across a southern England in the grip of a harsh winter. The snow and ice befits the country’s desolation; the confusion of motives and allegiances entirely representative of Britain’s fallen state. Nobody can be trusted and, even though Rossett and Koehler might call themselves friends, friendship is not necessarily something to be relied upon. Nothing is straightforward. The British Resistance is not made up of heroes and freedom fighters but is instead the refuge of the country’s most unprincipled and ruthless criminals and gangsters. The American spies are themselves fighting for a country (and American ambassador Joseph Kennedy) with dodgy politics at best. There are good guys but sometimes they’re not on the side you expect. But above it all are the Germans, whose soldiers patrol Britain’s towns and roadblock its countryside. Rossett’s mission takes him into the heart of this captured land and into its darkest places.

The British Lion is the follow up novel to The Darkest Hour. I can certainly see the benefit of having read this first although, as a reader who hadn’t, I did find it easy to catch up on what had gone before and the characters almost immediately felt familiar. I will make a point of reading The Darkest Hour, though. I don’t want to miss out. Tony Schumacher writes brilliantly but not only is the prose sharp and entralling but he has also filled the novel, its characters and plot with a multitude of layers, playing with our sympathies while still having us on the edge of our seats.

There is all the action of a wartime or cold war thriller here – it is packed full of suspense and shocks. We move between the different factions, seeing them all at their best and worst (and the worst is very bad indeed). We see the horror that faces a Britain under Nazi rule through the character of Jewish scientist Ruth Hartz, but Ruth is also such a complex character and she carries with her some huge surprises. But our sympathies are most strongly pulled towards Koehler’s young daughter, Anja, whose character is beautifully drawn by Schumacher. There are lots of memorable moments in this novel but probably the one that will stay with me the longest is its most tender. How I cried.

The relationship between Rossett and Koehler is absolutely fascinating. These are not straightforward men and both are caught in situations they would prefer to escape. Both are ruthless, products of their time but also with the power to influence their time. I could never tire of reading about these two.

The British Lion is a powerful, compelling thriller – beautifully written and populated by complex, fascinating characters, drawn from each of the factions that rule and sabotage this alternate Britain. It is superb.