Category Archives: World War One

The River Between Us by Liz Fenwick

HQ | 2021 (10 June) | c.500p | Review copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

The River Between Us by Liz FenwickOn the rebound from her divorce, Theo buys a cottage, sight unseen, on the banks of the Tamar, the river that divides Cornwall from Devon. The cottage is in a poor state of repair – fortunately the villagers prove to be a useful and practical sort – and Theo soon falls in love with it. Her ties are strengthened when she discovers some letters hidden away, which tell of a love affair between a servant, Zach, and Lady Alice who lived at the nearby manor house of Abbotswood. Their love is divided by the river but also by class and ultimately by war as Zach becomes a soldier in the First World War. In the present day, the remains of soldiers have been uncovered in a field in France. The indications are that they were Tamar men. The village waits to learn their identities.

Liz Fenwick writes the most beautiful romantic stories, each deeply embedded in the place that she loves – Cornwall. I share that love and so I am especially drawn to her novels. There is such a strong sense of place and The River Between Us is no different.

I was immediately drawn to Theo, a middle-aged woman who is starting from scratch all over again, having lost the home she loved. We get to know and like her as she rebuilds her new home and gets to know the people of the village. I do like a novel that features an older woman! Theo is an interesting woman.

The novel moves between the present and the past as Theo investigates the mysterious and unopened letters that she discovers. This is a device but I like it and the letters are soon joined by portraits and the manor itself as a picture is drawn up of society in this remote and beautiful area in the early 1900s before war took away so many of its men. The river symbolises the divide between classes as Zach must deal with his impossible love. I loved Theo’s story but I was also really attracted to Lady Alice.

I listened to the audiobook, which was beautifully narrated by Lucy Scott. This is just the sort of novel that I love to listen to. It carried me away to a place I love and the prose is beautiful and so evocative. I highly recommend it.

Other reviews
The Returning Tide
The Path to the Sea

The Lost Ones by Anita Frank

HQ | 2019 (31 October) | 453p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lost Ones by Anita FrankIt is 1917 and Stella Marcham is stricken by grief for the loss of her fiancé Gerald, killed in the trenches of France during the Great War, a war which shows no signs of ending. There are still many young men whose lives the war waits to claim. Stella’s family find Stella’s grief hard to deal with and, as the months pass, suspect a mental weakness. They find a solution. Stella’s sister Madeleine is pregnant. Her husband has moved her away from London to the safety of the countryside and his manor house, Greyswick, and the care of his mother, Lady Brightwell, while he continues his war work in the capital. She needs a companion. Both sisters are delighted to see each other and draw comfort from the other. But Stella is worried by how she finds her sister. Madeleine seems unsettled, unhappy, even frightened, and when Stella finds a little toy soldier tucked inside her bed she begins to understand that something is not right with this house. And then the nights are disturbed by the sound of a child crying. A child that cannot possibly exist.

I love a good ghost story and I am drawn to tales of haunted houses and there is something extra chilling and sad about those which are set during the First World War, a time when many wives and mothers were drawn to learn about the spirit world due to the untimely, violent loss of their men and boys. The Lost Ones is beautifully written, with its gorgeous prose as haunted by a lost world as the house is. The descriptions of Greyswick and its grounds are evocative and powerful and the novel has such a strong sense of time, place and mood.

The heart of the novel, though, lies with its cast of characters, in particular Stella and her maid Annie Burrows. Annie’s relationship with Stella is a fascinating one. They’re from different classes and experiences but the two of them are drawn together by what they witness in the house. Annie’s past, as the daughter of a man who died trying to save Stella’s sister in a fire, casts a shadow over the relationship and the novel. Annie is hard to know. We’re presented this world from upstairs, in Stella’s words, in comfort. But Annie’s voice breaks through and it adds a real edge to the novel. Then there are the women who live in the house – Lady Brightwell, her companion and the housekeeper. Each is a scene stealer. Possibly the only character who doesn’t linger in the mind is Madeleine. It’s as if the house has stolen her true self away and she must leave to save herself.

The ghost story is such a good one. It’s poignant and sad and at times pleasingly frightening. There is also another side to things – the treatment of women in the early 20th century, the issue of mental health and grief, male domination of society and the home, and the role of women as both victim and oppressor. Stella had experienced an independent life in France as a nurse. She now has no independence at all. But The Lost Ones is also a novel about love. The moments when Stella remembers the precious, short time she shared with Gerald are upsetting but there comes a time when they start to give her comfort. This is something she has to work through. Just as the house itself must endure darkness before it can re-emerge.

The Lost Ones is an excellent and extremely atmospheric haunted house story set at a time stricken by loss due to the First World War. In this atmosphere of loss, grief, worry and traumatic memories, ghosts thrive. But what is it they’re trying to say? I loved the characters and I really enjoyed exploring the house. I did guess the outcome and there was some predictability but nevertheless this novel is beautifully written and evocative of time and place, just what you need for these long dark evenings.

And what a gorgeous hardback!

The Photographer of the Lost by Caroline Scott

SImon & Schuster | 2019 (31 October) | 504p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Photographer of the Lost by Caroline ScottIt is 1921 when Edie receives a photograph in the post. It takes a moment or two for her to take in what she sees. She then realises she’s looking at the face of her husband, who was lost in action four years before, one of so many to have been claimed by the Great War. Edie doesn’t understand why she’s received the photo but it inevitably opens wounds that have barely begun to heal over. It also lights a hope. Could Francis be alive after all? If he is, why didn’t he come home? It stirs up terrible memories for Francis’s brother Harry as well. Harry and Francis fought alongside each other on the front line, beside their other brother, the youngest of the three, Will. Harry now spends his days in northern France and Belgium taking photographs of graves, battle sites, bombed buildings to send back to mourning relatives at home. But now he’s on the hunt for his brother, a soldier who has no known grave. He learns that Edie is also in France searching for the truth, but he doesn’t know where she is. He must search for her as well. She, too, seems lost.

The Photographer of the Lost is a beautifully-written, exquisitely sad tale that moves between 1916/1917 and the frontline experiences of Francis, Harry and Will, and 1921, when both Harry and Edie are in France, separately searching for Francis, seeking closure. Both want to move on but neither can. Harry can’t even escape from France. His memories and his sadness keep him there, plus the need to help widows and mothers who may never be able to visit the graves of their loved ones in foreign soil.

Harry and Edie guide us through this haunting novel but it’s the people they meet on their quests that make The Photographer of the Lost so special. Many of them have both physical and mental scars from the war and each is trying to remember (or forget) in their own way. One man, for example, has made it his life’s work to re-inter soldiers in neat, respectful cemeteries where they can be visited, another is a stone mason who wants to rebuild France with his own hands. And there are several others who have their own stories to tell, their own wounds to bear. But the one thing they are all able to do is to listen. Both Harry and Edie receive comfort as they meet other people all affected by the war.

The Photographer of the Lost is a desperately moving novel that links the war itself with the years of suffering that followed it. It explores the burden of memory for soldiers such as Harry who survived. It is beautifully set in the almost-destroyed towns of northern France and Belgium, such as Arras and Ypres as well as the towns and villages of the Somme. The scars of the land reflect those of the people who died there and those who are effectively the walking wounded, unable to keep away. At times I felt the novel was almost too sad to bear and, strangely, this distanced me a little from Edie and Harry, but the beauty of this novel and the elegance of its writing cannot be denied.

A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan

Zaffre | 2018 (4 October) | 419p | Review copy | Buy the book

A House of Ghosts by WC RyanThe winter solstice of 1917 is approaching and Lord Highmount has arranged a meeting of spiritualists and friends at his old and creaking house, Blackwater Abbey, located on a small island off the Devon coast. Lord Highmount and his wife Lady Elizabeth recently lost both of their sons in the war. The boys disappeared from their lives and they’re missed desperately. Lady Elizabeth believes that mediums Madame Feda and Count Orlov will unite her with their spirits. There are other visitors to the house, including a doctor who believes that his patient, a traumatised soldier, is in touch with the dead due to his own traumatic near-death experience. They have come to the right place.

And then there are Kate Cartwright and Robert Donovan. Kate and Donavon are at the house on a mission from Britain’s secret service. Lord Highmount is a successful industrialist contributing to the war effort. There are reasons to believe some of his plans have ended up on German desks and this ‘house party’ will provide the perfect opportunity to trap a spy. But there is far more to Kate than meets the eye.

A House of Ghosts is a stunning novel, a thoroughly absorbing read that combines a chilling ghost story – because it is indeed set within a house of ghosts – with a tale of war. The First World War overshadows everything in this novel. Almost everyone in the house has either lost someone to the war or has fought in it themselves and is recovering from its nightmare. It’s hardly surprising that the dead are restless.

Blackwater Abbey provides the perfect location, especially as it is cut off from the land by a mid winter storm. The house itself might be frightening but the outside is no less deadly. There is no escape for our small group of suspects when one of their number is found murdered. This classic murder mystery scenario, so well executed here, is reason enough to enjoy A House of Ghosts but it is enhanced by its melancholic mood, the result of war and loss, and by the very real chill of its ghosts for this is a house where the dead far outnumber the living.

Kate Cartwright and Donovan are the characters we grow closest to and they’re an enigmatic pair. I particularly enjoyed Kate’s attitude to the spiritual world around her, which contrasts so vividly to the attitude of Madame Feda. Kate is enduring her own loss. There is someone she too would like to contact. But all are distracted by the murderer stalking the house – is this person real?

As the evenings draw in, A House of Ghosts is the perfect read. It’s so easy to lose yourself in it. It’s beautifully written – as you’d expect from the author of The Constant Soldier – and richly evocative of its time and setting. It’s frightening in places but also, rather unexpectedly, I found it comforting and warm, despite the chill of its winter storm. It provides food for thought, particularly on the devastating harm of war, and is impossible to put down.

Other reviews
The Constant Soldier