Tag Archives: First World War

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

Seven Days in May by Kim Izzo

HarperCollins | 2017 (15 June) | 356p | Review copy | Buy the book

Seven Days in May by Kim IzzoDespite their enormous wealth and beauty, New York socialite sisters Brooke and Sydney Sinclair share little in common. Parentless, they are free to explore their interests. Sydney is a suffragette who wants to use her wealth for good, supporting causes she cares for, such as birth control and abortion – controversial for a rich young woman in 1915. Brooke, on the other hand, is about to have the wedding of the year (in her opinion). She is to marry Edward Thorpe-Tracey, the future Lord Northbrook and one of those impoverished English aristocrats in need of a rich American heiress. Edward has arrived in New York to escort Brooke and Sydney back to England for the wedding and, in Brooke’s case, a new life. War in Europe seems a long way away, despite Edward’s imminent departure for the trenches in France, but, as the Lusitania sets sail to Britain in May 1915 amid warnings of German U-Boats hungrily patrolling the Atlantic and Irish Sea, war suddenly seems much more real to Brooke and Sidney.

The glamour of the chapters aboard the Lusitania are contrasted by the story of Isabel Nelson, a young woman who has escaped a scandal in Oxford to redeem herself fighting the war in the mysterious Room 40 of the British Admiralty in London. It is here that Isabel finds she has a gift for codes and ciphers and soon becomes an integral part of what is largely a male team. Much that is secret passes through Isabel’s hands but most alarming of all are the messages that indicate that the U-Boats have caught the scent of the Lusitania.

Seven Days in May is a glamorous novel, full of the rich colours and romance of its day – at least for those who are rich, far from war and have the time and money to sail across the Atlantic in the most luxurious of ships and cabins for a week of dinner parties, cocktails and promenades. But thanks to Sydney’s rebellious ways, we’re also given glimpses of life below decks, in the Lusitania‘s less salubrious but nevertheless still smart quarters for third class passengers. Confined to the ship for a week or more, gossip is everything, new friends are made, lovers even, and lives can be changed. We meet people, both fictional and historical, and a vivid picture of life aboard the Lusitania is created. But it is all overshadowed because the reader knows what happened to the ship.

I am such a big fan of novels set on ships, particularly during the glorious days of the great liners. I love the manners and the etiquette, the contrast between the luxury of the upper decks and those below, between passengers and crew, between old and new worlds. However, there is an air of predictability to Seven Days in May that goes beyond the well-known event of the Lusitania‘s sinking, which is anticipated throughout the book. It isn’t difficult to work out at all how the love triangle aboard the ship will play out. Similarly, Isabel’s story has little depth. She’s purely there to build tension. Although it must be said that this is a device that works very well.

The anticipated sinking takes its time, and I must admit that by that point I was very ready for something to happen, also welcoming an escape from the Brooke, Sydney and Edward situation, even though I liked all three characters. Edward is particularly interesting and I would have liked to have spent more time with him when he was less concerned about his marriage. The sinking added the drama the novel was waiting for and I was engrossed in those chapters. I also really appreciated the historical background to the sinking and to the suggested policy of the war office towards civilian vessels risking the Atlantic. It’s for this that I read Seven Days of May – as soon as it arrived, that’s how interested I am in the subject – and it gave me much to think about and a desire to find out more about the ship, which has been overshadowed by the Titanic tragedy three years before.

Seven Days in May is a light and entertaining read, largely romance with a dramatic conclusion. That’s what I was expecting and, as a result, I enjoyed being swept away on the high yet dangerous seas for a day or two. I must also add that this is a beautiful paperback and this most definitely added to what was a very pleasant reading experience.

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.

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

The Ends of the Earth | Robert Goddard | 2015, Pb 2016 | 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

Time and Time Again by Ben Elton

Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 400
Year: 2014 (6 November)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Time and Time Again by Ben EltonReview
It is Christmas 2024 and Hugh ‘Guts’ Stanton is a man with nothing to lose. His wife and children are dead, killed in a road accident just a few months before. So when Sally McCluskey, his eccentric and difficult to dislike (or ignore) old Professor, summons him to Cambridge to spend the holidays with her, to talk about her latest project, he has little reason to say no. What if, she asks him, you could go back in time and change history, which piece of history would you put to rights? This is the question that has been handed down the line of Masters of Trinity College for the longest of times. McCluskey is now Master and it is at this time that the question can finally be answered.

A door to the past is about to open. Hugh Stanton, an adventurer and ex-military man with nothing to keep him in the present and nothing to look forward to in the future, is ideally placed and skilled to step through that door and to prevent one of the most catastrophic events of the 20th century – the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his Duchess in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914.

This, then, is where Ben Elton takes us in his new thriller, Time and Time Again. I have also given you just the barest of bones because this book is packed to the rafters with surprises (some of them are belters) and much of its pleasure derives from its shocks. The premise might sound rather familiar – it did make me think of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life as well as Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, plus, in a commemorative year that resonates with the legacy of 1914, the premise of Time and Time Again might appear on the face of it too neat. But after the fewest of pages, it became entirely clear to me that Time and Time Again would defy all my expectations. Ben Elton has taken a popular premise and made it his own in the same way that he has done something wonderful with the tried and tested timeslip genre. Two Brothers was one of my very favourite reads of 2013 – Time and Time Again is every bit as striking and memorable.

Ben Elton has a strong sense of the burden of history and it is as apparent in Time and Time Again as it was in Two Brothers, albeit this time we are touching on a different war. With the benefit of hindsight, both ours and Hugh’s, the significance of the smallest detail in Hugh’s journey in the past is felt so strongly. The historical details and settings are meticulous and vivid. Moving through history, Hugh tries to stay aloof, to keep clear his mission, but the past slowly brings Hugh back to life, he starts to find its colour, reassured that his own past is now eradicated, the future unwritten.

There are so many conundrums in this clever novel that a reader needs some wits about them. Arguably, nothing is easier or harder than to change history and it’s not long before Hugh is tied up in his very own Gordion Knot. But while this is intellectually enjoyable and teasing, Time and Time Again also contains some simpler pleasures, not least in the character of Irish suffragette Bernaette ‘Bernie’ Burdette who is an absolute delight. Likewise, there is humour, especially in the shape of Professor McClusky who gets most of the good lines and enjoys telling them. Above all else, this novel sparkles with such a powerful, all pervasive love of the past and a deep sense of foreboding for what might happen if people should think themselves foolish enough to be able to play with it.

Without doubt, Ben Elton is one of the most exciting authors about. I was so excited when I learned about Time and Time Again and I am delighted, but not surprised, to have found it marvellous.

Other review
Two Brothers

Before the Fall by Juliet West

Publisher: Mantle/Pan
Pages: 348
Year: 2014 (Pb: 28 August)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

Before the Fall Pb by Juliet WestReview
Hannah Loxwood is struggling to make ends meet. The year is 1916 and her husband George is in the trenches, fighting in a war that too often comes perilously close to home, not just in the dreaded telegrams or in the return of men unrecognisable from the men who left, but also in the zeppelin raids that terrorise London time after time. With two small children, Hannah has moved into the home of her unhappy sister Jen and her lecherous husband, always under scrutiny. Hannah is lucky to avoid employment in the factories unlike her closest friend Dor, with her poisoned yellow hair and skin, and instead manages to find work in a cafe. Money and food are short, life is difficult, but a light sparks in Hannah when she makes a friend in Daniel Blake, a mender of ships and a frequenter of the cafe. Initially, it looks like Daniel is courting Dor but it’s soon clear that Dor is nothing to Daniel but an excuse for him to grow closer to Hannah. Quickly, and in the most guilty of circumstances, Daniel and Hannah fall in love.

Based on a true story, Before the Fall is a beautiful and, perhaps not surprisingly, painful evocation of this most difficult of times. The war itself is rarely touched upon, instead it is a dark shadow that has impacted on everyone’s life, making itself known through divided families, bombs, women in the workplace and in pubs, food shortages, letters from the trenches, upset children, white feathers, limbless men. Hannah and her two children long for letters from her husband, George, uninformative as they are thanks to censorship, and although we rarely meet George ourselves through the course of the novel he is not to be forgotten, perhaps even more so as he becomes a source of guilt.

London is wonderfully portrayed, especially during the times when it is under attack. The factories, streets, pubs and homes, with many people living almost on top of one another, are vividly painted. Dor is a fabulous character, adding colour to the wartime grey that characterises Hannah, at least in my mind. Hannah’s thoughts and feelings are transparent throughout, thanks to the first person present tense narrative that guides us through her story, but Daniel is less open and this is heightened by the switch to third person prose for the chapters dealing with his life. This inevitably, I think, draws us closer to Hannah but it does mean this reader at least kept Daniel at arm’s length.

From the very first page it is clear that this is not a love story that is likely to end happily for anyone concerned in it. Hannah is a sympathetic character. She is also very young and this life that she finds herself in – poor, husbandless, dependent on family with a father that always confuses her with her long dead sister, hungry – is not an easy one, exacerbated as it is by the general lack of freedom that women endured in those day, especially those whose husbands were absent. Everywhere there are judging eyes. Everyone is judged – men aren’t exempt, examined as they are for clues to why they are not in France. But a woman who falls in love with another man while her husband is fighting in the trenches for his king and country?

I was moved by this love story. Its ending was not a surprise but that didn’t make it less powerful. My only issue with the novel is that I, too, found it very hard to forget the poor husband! I found the character of Daniel difficult to like. The tragedy in his past life failed to make me see him as more than a secretive man who could do young Hannah and her children great harm. I felt Hannah deserved better. I think her husband did, too.

Before the Fall is a beautifully written and compassionate novel, demanding to be read in just one or two sittings. I think it will hold its own very well among the World War 1 novels that are being published in this commemorative year.

The Storms of War by Kate Williams

Publisher: Orion
Pages: 514
Year: 2014, Pb 2015
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

The Storms of War by Kate WilliamsReview
It is 1 August 1914 and war is just days away. For German immigrant and meat merchant Rudolf de Witt, his English wife Verena and their four children, tensions are greater than for most. A village party hosted by the de Witts ends in humiliation, snubbed by the villagers, a trivial event in itself but a sign of how lines have been drawn between the British and those who are now regarded as the enemy. For youngest daughter, 15-year-old Celia, this is a time to cast off her childhood clothes and to raise up a notch her flirtation with servant and groom Tom. Her sister Emmeline is about to marry Sir Hugh, sealing the respectability of this half-British family, while no one would seem to hate the Germans more than brother Michael. Of Arthur, the eldest brother and away in Paris, there is not a word.

But when war breaks out on 4 August everything changes for the de Witt family and their servants, leaving only Verena safe in her grand home of Stoneythorpe, bewildered and abandoned. Celia, Michael, Tom and Rudolf undergo years of horror, each leaving mental and physical scars, and it is their stories that come alive in this fine family saga.

The Storms of War is essentially a novel in two parts, the first preparing us – and the characters – for what is to come in the second. The point of view shifts through the novel, spending time in turns with Michael and Celia in particular. Celia’s story is initially a domestic one, continuing her lessons, dealing with her sister and mother, and coming to terms with the absence of Michael, Tom and her father. Michael’s perspective is unbearably different, surrounded as he is by the fear, dread and danger of trench warfare. Kate Williams, a historian whose love of the past shines through these pages, brings the horror to the fore through descriptions of dealing with the lice, the rats and the dirt. It’s a riveting read.

Once Celia embarks on her adulthood, her story rivals – and exceeds – that of Michael in its depiction of war. Celia’s experiences as an ambulance driver in France are enormously powerful and horrifying. The camaraderie between the girls, brought together from a range of backgrounds and motives, mirrors that between the men in the trenches, the men that these girls collect in pieces.

The descriptions of war are outstanding, all the more so because Kate Williams has made us care so much for the characters – whether major or minor. The contrast between the chapters set in London and Stoneythorpe and those set in France or in hospitals at home is dramatic and poignant. The trivial versus the fundamental. As a result, I had very little time for Emmeline and only slightly more for Verena. My feelings for Rudolf were also mixed, as they are supposed to be. But I had all the time in the world for Celia, Michael and Tom – especially poor, young Celia, brave beyond her years, with demands made on her that should never have been made and so much heart despite the efforts of some to tear it apart.

There is so much going on in The Storms of War, its pace is furious and never lets up. I’m a big fan of Downton Abbey and so I thoroughly enjoyed the saga’s great dramas, one after another, the characters that come and go, leaving devastation and turmoil in their wake, the twists and turns (pleasurable despite their predictability), and the tragedies that will endure for years. Despite the bloody war scenes, this is not a heavy read. Its purpose is to inform and to be enjoyed and it succeeds perfectly.

The Storms of War is the first in the saga. The next will take the history and story of the de Witt family through to 1927. Some characters are merely hinted at in this first novel – especially brother Arthur and the mysterious General – while others make enigmatic appearances – the American Jonathan for one. I can’t wait to see what Kate will do with them all next as the stormclouds of war disperse.