Beyond A Broken Sky by Suzanne Fortin
I’m a big fan of historical fiction and Suzanne Fortin cemented her place as an author to look out for when I read her debut novel The Forgotten Life of Arthur Pettinger. Her combination of time-slip narrative, history and romance is irresistible. I’m interested in the stories people don’t tell us about themselves and the years spent at war often feel like a parallel dimension where people and stories were lost. People died, became displaced, or were simply too traumatised to relive the events of those years. For many, their ordinary every day lives stopped in 1939 and they lived a completely different life away from friends and family, with a new occupation and a changing sense of self. They could act completely out of character in the high pressure of combat or became worn down by the difficulties of being a civilian in a bombed city, living on rations and making new friendships with the unlikeliest people.To then return and pack everything that’s happened neatly away to restart where you left off seems impossible, but many people did. How often do we hear people say that their father or grandfather never talked about the war? My own father-in-law had been sent to a Russian work camp in Siberia, because his father was in the military. His brother didn’t survive, but he and his Mum escaped and lived in a forest camp with the Polish resistance, gradually walking their way down through the Middle East, across Northern Africa and into Europe and eventually England. I would never have known this incredible story if I hadn’t seen a photo of him as a boy, standing in front of the pyramids. My mother-in-law was a child in the Warsaw Ghetto who escaped through the sewer system. Yet neither dwelled on that life, preferring to look forward where life was less painful. Suzanne’s novels fill that gap, that silence where someone’s experience is perhaps too painful to share. She writes these stories that are often complex and present something new about the war, and about people, that I hand’s thought of before.
It just happened that I’d read Ruth Druart’s The Last Hours in Paris and Joanna Quinn’s The Whalebone Theatre very recently, both of which included characters who were enemy prisoners of war, brought to English camps, but often released into the community to help out farmers or do other work that helped the Allied war effort. Some of these men waited up to three years after the war ended to be returned to their homeland and working within communities led to friendships and relationships with some British people. In Fortin’s latest novel we are taken to Somerset in 2022. Telton Hall is the home of Jack Hartwell, a farmer in his eighties, trying to come to terms with the compulsory purchase of his land and home. Rhoda Campbell is a stained glass expert and restorer, visiting to look at a stained glass window designed by POW Paulo Sartori. She works for a museum that conserves old historic buildings and they hope to move the whole chapel and window to their site. However she finds Jack blocking the driveway in his tractor, in the hope of delaying a little bit longer. It takes Rhoda’s charm and the arrival of his son Nate to get things moving again. As the three of them look at the chapel, Jack’s terrier disappears down a gap between flagstones. Rhoda lays on her front to see where he’s gone and makes a terrible discovery, human bones buried underneath the flagstones. This puts in place a chain of events that reaches all the way back to WW2 and has an effect on Rhoda whose own brother is a missing person.
The story alternates between 2022 with Rhoda’s urge to investigate the mystery she’s uncovered and back to the end of WWII when a young woman called Alice Renshaw finds herself pregnant to an American airman, Brett. As she prepares to marry Brett at the village church, Alice is so happy even though it’s an uncertain future she faces, possibly over in America. However, Brett doesn’t turn up at the church and thanks to his father’s connections he is transferred out of the country immediately. Alice is heartbroken. A few weeks later she’s at Telton Hall, where Louise Hartwell takes on young girls ‘in trouble’ and finds homes for their babies with couples who can’t have children. Louise is also still running the farm, with the help of Jack who is ten, his step-brother Billy, who needs to walk with a stick after being wounded. There are also two Italian POW’s helping with the produce gardens, one of whom is Paolo Sartori. Every time the book delves into the past we hear a little more about the story of Telton Hall, the diverse characters staying there and the connections they form with each other. Each time we go back to WW2, we’re getting closer to the answers and the tension builds, while in the present those that would like Rhoda silenced, come ever closer.
I was gripped by the drama of Telton Hall in the 1930’s and desperate for the hateful Billy to get his just desserts before he can permanently hurt anyone. In the present I was convinced I wouldn’t like the answers to the mystery. I was worried that it would have an impact on characters I’d become attached to, who might have only acted badly due to the extreme circumstances. The ending was a surprise and gave me the answers, as well as putting a smile on my face knowing that there was a happy ending for some. I loved Alice’s ability to trust and love after her experience with Brett. I felt the author really captured that sense of displacement and dislocation that many felt during the war, their separation from ‘normal’ life and the way their actions within that time had repercussions for years to come. Ultimately, the story shows us the amazing ability we humans have to heal, our incredible resilience and capacity to love. This could manifest in holding on to a love that won’t die or in finding we have an endless capacity of love, even when our experiences have shown us a depth of loss that seems insurmountable. For Rhoda it means the possibility of letting love in, despite having no blue print of family life from her own childhood. This book is heartfelt and moving, showing us that like Rhoda’s stained glass we are made up of many parts, each experience and influence adding together to make something uniquely beautiful.
Published on 22nd July by Aria
Meet the Author
Suzanne writes historical fiction, predominantly dual timeline and set in France. Her books feature courageous women in extraordinary circumstances with love and family at the heart of all the stories.
Suzanne also writes mystery and suspense as Sue Fortin where she is a USA Today bestseller and Amazon UK #1 and Amazon US #3 bestseller. She has sold over a million copies of her books and been translated into multiple languages.