I’ve been reading this book for two days straight. Firstly because I had a fall a few nights ago so I’ve been recuperating from being very sore and bruised. Secondly, once the story started to unfold I found it hard to move away from. The concept of forgiveness is one that has always fascinated me and confused me in equal measure. As a child brought up in a religious household it was a requirement of Christianity, rather than a choice I could think about and there was no discussion about the understandable negative feelings surrounding it – anger, bitterness, hurt – because those were wrong too. As an adult I’ve had to talk myself out of this blanket approach to forgiveness and give myself permission not to forgive. I’ve also had to think about when holding onto that anger and bitterness might be more harmful to me than the other person – ‘holding onto anger is like holding a fiery coal’. I also had to learn that just because I forgive an action, doesn’t mean I have to keep that person in my life. Forgiveness does not always mean everything neatly slots back to the way it did before. This is something the characters in this book come to learn and it is Marcy who ends up with the most to forgive.
After her abusive husband is arrested and held on remand for dodgy business dealings, Rebecca decides to take her daughter, and her mother Marcy, and relocate somewhere totally new, leaving no trace. She goes as far as to change her name to Claudia and her daughter’s to Jasmine, dropping their Huxley-Browne surname. Marcus Huxley-Browne was a controlling bully, who had slowly sucked all of the confidence and joy out of Claudia over several years. He met her when she was a vulnerable widow and his kindness led her to trust him. Then once they were married all that sensitivity and care seemed to melt away. Then slowly he took a chisel to every part of her personality and chipped away until she started to doubt who she was. With a lot of help from Marcy, they take the opportunity of Marcus being remanded in prison to flee to the coast. There, in a flat by the sea, the three of them feel able to breathe again. Away from the constant criticism, Claudia finds she can make friends easily and even starts working again as an interior designer. She sees an incredible coach house for sale that would make a wonderful forever home for the family and she sets to work. The world seems to finally be opening up for Claudia and her family. However, will Marcus ever truly let go of them?
A terrible event does occur in the book that no one could have foreseen. It’s here where the theme of forgiveness, as a possible part of the restorative justice process, comes into the story and I found this part really interesting. Restorative justice is about victims and offenders communicating within a safe and mediated environment to talk about the harm that has been caused and finding a way to repair that harm. It gives the victim the chance to talk about the impact the crime has had on them directly to the offender. It gives the offender the chance to relate the crime they committed to an actual person and see how the victim has been affected. It also holds them accountable for their actions in a way that doesn’t always happen in the normal court process. Government research demonstrates that restorative justice provides an 85% victim satisfaction rate, and a 14% reduction in the frequency of reoffending. Here the author gives us both sides of the process by showing us in stark detail the effect of the crime on the victim, but also the background of the offender. Here and there through the narrative we read letters from the offender – how the restorative process begins- that detail his home life, the brutal hold of a family member on him and his mother, and a life of crime forced upon him from a young age. We know that this person is really the bottom of a long chain, a criminal subcontractor hired by someone powerful to do his dirty work. Essentially he is expendable, simply there to carry the can. Although in this case, the crime is much worse than was planned or expected.
This was a really engaging read. I quickly became invested in the family’s story and found myself very worried that their past would catch up with them, especially since a couple of their new friends started to work out who they really were. When there is a confrontation I found myself holding my breath, wondering what retribution would follow. I loved Marcy’s new romance with Henry and the fearless way she throws herself into the relationship. She was by far my favourite character and her story the most moving. I was imagining this funky, ballsy grandmother as Helen Mirren. It was a bit of a shock to hear one character to describe her as like Emma Thompson – I can’t imagine a world where Emma Thompson is old enough to have a 17 year old granddaughter! However, in terms of Marcy’s intelligence, beauty and grace it really made sense. Next to her, Claudia seems a lot quieter, cautious and sometimes invisible – something that’s not surprising given the experience she’s gone through with Marcus. It’s wonderful to see her come to life which tends to happen when she’s working on a project, especially The Coach House which is an incredible labour of love. I always feel on safe ground with Lewis. I know I’ll get a good read and I love that a lot of her heroines are women in middle life, dealing with their own problems, while supporting teenagers and parents who often need help. Far from being uninteresting and invisible, it’s women in mid-life who are often holding everything together while trying to hold down a job as well. But we’re also resilient, brave and ran out of damns to give a long time ago. I like that Lewis writes this mid-life characters and gives them strong, complex storylines like this one to get our teeth into.
Meet The Author
Susan Lewis has over thirty books to her name. She grew up in a council house on the edge of Bristol and was sent to boarding school after her mother died when she was 9. She has lived all over the world and started writing when she was advised by a boss at Thames Television to ‘go away and write something’. After time in the South of France and Hollywood she now lives in a barn in the Cotswolds with her husband and two dogs Coco and Lulabelle. Her website can be found at:
‘Over these things I could not see; These were the things that bounded me; And I could touch them with my hand, Almost, I thought, from where I stand’.
Renascence by Edna St Vincent Millay
Fiona Graph’s novel is an interesting and well- researched piece of historical fiction, set in a period of history that I’m particularly interested in. Graph’s story writes back, both to a different time but also to a different element of society, one that hasn’t been well represented in fiction of the time. In the same way that Sarah Waters has written lesbian experience back into the Victorian period, here we visit a brother and sister post WWI who both describe themselves as ‘queer’. Freddie fought in the war, but now runs a women’s fashion boutique in London with his sister Ellen. Freddie is a designer, whereas Ellen tends to work with the passing customers selling off the peg clothes and accessories. Ellen is a woman who was somewhat emancipated through the war, due to working in jobs previously the preserve of men and from her activism in the suffragette movement. Brother and sister live together above the shop and are at a point where they’re both single. Freddie was in love with a fellow soldier who was lost in the war, and his most recent relationship with a young solicitor called Alec broke down. Ellen is seeing a woman called Myra, one of a string of married women that have allowed her to keep real love at a distance. Fate is now going to bring people into their lives that may challenge the lives they’ve built, that’s if all concerned can shrug off the ties that bind them to the past.
I fell in love with Freddie. He’s a lovely brother and incredibly talented, very keen to create clothes that are beautiful but that real women can wear. He needs to live quietly since his experiences in the war and has bravely been ‘out’ for years. It’s amazing that in such recent history he finds that people spit at his feet in the street. While he’s made a brave choice to live openly, his relationships are not easy. We learn that he pushed Alec away by behaving badly, in much the same way that Ellen has pushed real relationships away with secret liaisons with women who will never be free. It’s the reappearance of Ellen’s friend Kate that is the catalyst bringing these four people together. At a suffragette funeral, Ellen spies Kate who has been living in Paris. They had an easy going friendship before she left, even though their activism took different paths. Ellen supported peaceful protest, leafleting and was even known to throw the odd brick through a shop window. However, Kate had favoured more direct action such as Emily Davison’s jump in front of the King’s horse at the Grand National. Kate has been in self-imposed exile, after burning down a church. To her horror, in the aftermath a body was found in the wreckage. Kate had scrupulously checked all of the pews and the vestry, but it appeared in a newspaper that police had found the body of a man, possibly a rough sleeper. In fear, Kate fled the country and has lived the last few years in Paris. Will the women be able to pick up the friendship that was in its infancy back then? Even more importantly, will Kate ever be able to forgive herself for what happened. Ellen has always thought this newspaper account of Kate’s direct action, was a little bit fishy. There’s never been any other account that mentions this man, so Ellen suggests they investigate, enlisting the help of Freddie’s ex-boyfriend Alec. The investigation, and what they discover, could change the course of all their lives and break the ties that bind them to the past.
I remember reading Sarah Waters’ book The Paying Guests, set at a similar point in history to this novel and also depicting women trying to break free of social constraints and live their authentic lives. I remember being astonished by the bravery of characters trying to live as openly gay women in the early 20th Century. I felt the same when reading this, but what it confirms is how far certain lifestyles have been erased from history. As a disabled woman, I feel the same way about experiences of disability and I get so excited when a character has a disability. It shows me how much we need books that write these histories, it gives us context, broadens our understanding and represents the true diversity of a society and time. This novel did that for me, but also showed the struggle of people trying to live in the aftermath of such a turbulent time. Post WWI everything changed and the ordered Edwardian society of the turn of the century had been turned on its head. Instead of being largely in the home, women had experienced the freedoms that men had been enjoying for decades. More women had to take up jobs to make up the labour shortfall, bringing them out of the home for the first time. Many didn’t want to go back to the domestic sphere. The aristocracy were crumbling, many had lost the heads of their family, and their heirs too. With estates crippled by multiple death duties many sold up, or sent their sons to America to find a rich heiress to change their fortunes. Different loyalties had been formed across class boundaries, between men who had fought side by side. After the horror of war, the collective grief and upheaval, I can understand people wanting to live their truth and stop hiding. That’s what our characters are doing here, simply trying to live as who they are – something a lot of people take for granted. That was why I found both love stories very moving. I was rooting for both relationships. All they wanted was the ordinary things heterosexual couples would take for granted – to walk down the street together, to hold hands or hug in public, to eat dinner together and come home to each other.
I’ve read a lot about the suffragettes, and some of the treatment they were subjected to. I still found myself shocked by how Ellen responded to sexual assault. When she walks home at night from Kate’s flat, two men accost her and one gropes her breasts. Thanks to her activism she is trained in martial arts, so is able to overcome both of them and run back to Piccadilly where there are lights and people. When she relates the story back to her brother she doesn’t mention the sexual aspect of the assault at all. However, when we flash back to her suffragette days we remember that this was a daily occurrence, an actual police tactic. We see the police hatred of the movement when the group track down the police officer who found the body in the church after Kate’s arson. He’s now older, more frail, but his hatred of suffragettes and women in general is strong. I found this whole scene horrifying, but hilarious too. The fact that this man who considers himself so strong and dominant over women, is in fact defied and controlled by his own wife, really did make me laugh. However, it’s also a pivotal scene because here Kate may find the truth of what happened years ago and Ellen is hoping that this truth will set them both free and allow them to move forward. I think this shows us that often the ties that bind us, and hold us in place are of our own making. We are as free as we perceive ourselves to be. Here I’d like to return to the poem that inspires the title of the novel – Edna St Vincent Millay’s Renascence.
The world stands out on either side No wider than the heart is wide; Above the world is stretched the sky,— No higher than the soul is high. The heart can push the sea and land Farther away on either hand; The soul can split the sky in two, And let the face of God shine through. But East and West will pinch the heart That can not keep them pushed apart; And he whose soul is flat—the sky Will cave in on him by and by.
I love the final stanza of this poem, because it says exactly what I have taken away from the book. The world can be as wide as our heart is willing to accept. The sky is as endless as our soul allows it to be, in fact we can see beyond the physicality of our world to imagine a God and have a strong faith in some thing we can’t even see. All of this is achievable through the power of the mind. Yet if our heart is not open to experience our world becomes narrow and pinched, and if our soul cannot dream or believe then our opportunities and achievements come to nothing. We have the strength to break those ties that bind us, no matter how strong they may be, we can break beyond them and move into a better future.
Meet The Author
Fiona Graph was born in Sydney. Once she had obtained a degree in Psychology and Ancient History, she travelled before settling in north London. She worked variously as a psychologist, for an LGBT organisation and as a librarian, before ending up at the Foreign Office. Her youthful interest in writing came back strongly about five years ago. ‘Things That Bounded’ is her first novel to be published. A second novel will come out in 2021. You can find Fiona on Twitter at: @fiona_graph
I fell in love with Natasha Pulley’s imagination as soon as I picked up her first novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – anybody who can create a character that’s a clockwork octopus is definitely on my team. So it’s with great anticipation that I await her next novel, The Kingdoms. I have been lucky enough to be granted an ARC copy through NetGalley, but with a lot of reading to get through it might not be read until Christmas. Maybe I should make it my Christmas present to myself.
The book’s main character is Joe Tournier. He’s one of numerous British slaves dotted throughout the French Empire. He has a wife and daughter and has lived his entire life in London. So how come he has memories of a different place to this, a place where English is spoken in England instead of French. He has flashes of a different life to this.
There is a postcard waiting in a sorting office for Joe Tournier. It has been waiting for 91 years and shows a lighthouse named Eilean Mor set on an island in the Hebrides. The postcard was written about a hundred years ago, but Eilean Mor has only been built for six months. It was written by a complete stranger, but a stranger who seems to know Joe very well.
Joe’s quest to find out more about the postcard and it’s writer takes him from French -occupied London to the islands of Scotland. Here Joe will slip through time to fight for his own life, but also for a different future.
Come home again, if you remember.
Meet the Author
Natasha Pulley was born in Cambridge. She read English Literature at Oxford before doing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. In 2013 she went to Japan on a scholarship from the Daiwa Anglo Japanese Foundation. She lived in Tokyo for a year and a half, learning Japanese and researching her first book, ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’. More recently she spent several months in Peru courtesy of a travel grant from the Society of Authors, chasing llamas and researching ‘The Bedlam Stacks’. She lives in Bath
I was lucky enough to be sent an ARC copy of this a little while ago, but have found it difficult to get enough time to read it. Within a few pages it was clear I’ve been missing a treat. I absolutely loved this novel about family secrets, growing up and dress-making. We follow our narrator Flo, as she conducts a funeral for her grandmother. Her mother has been a life long traveller with wanderlust in her bones, so her grandmother’s home in Wandsworth is the only real home she has known. Flo is struggling under the weight of a grief she shares with her husband Seamus, so much so that their marriage has fallen apart at the seams. She is sinking into a depression when she decides to look for her grandmother’s old sewing machine. Instead she finds a box of 1960s dressmaking patterns and as she searches through she finds each packet has a photo or a postcard, often depicting the same woman beautifully dressed in the dress from the pattern. One photo shows this woman at the train station with Flo’s grandmother and close knit set of friends. Flo is intrigued by Nancy, this beautiful woman, who clearly knew her grandmother so well, but is never spoken of in the family. What is this big secret and why was this woman travelling through Europe? Inspired by one of the dresses Flo finds some fabric and spends all night putting together the full skirted day dress. For the first time in months Flo can feel a cloud lifting. What if she were to follow Nancy’s journey -wearing her wardrobe- to find out more about her and why she never came home?
This book lured me in immediately with its honesty and charm. I truly enjoyed the two narratives and different destinations on Flo and Nancy’s journeys, taken 50 years apart. Flo finds that Nancy was travelling as companion to a young lady, the daughter of a wealthy couple called Pamela. Pam is too old for a governess but too young to be left to her own devices. She is resentful of Nancy’s presence at first and doesn’t see why she needs babysitting. However, they start to bond. Nancy watches the criticism Pam receives from her stepmother. It covers everything from her attitude, to her weight and how she carries herself. Nancy can see that really she just needs a friend, someone who’s on her side and gives her some positivity and praise. This relationship becomes vital later in the novel, when Nancy discovers the truth of the dynamic in this family. Everything is going to change for Pam, and perhaps Nancy can be the constant in her life. Realising at the end of the book how this character fits into the present was so very satisfying.
The settings and fashion are beautifully described that I could picture every place and every outfit in my mind’s eye. I do a little bit of sewing, nothing as advanced as Nancy or Flo, so I had a great deal of respect for their work. I love fashion so this was an absolute gift for me, seeing how fashion transforms someone makes me smile. I love that it helps people express their individuality and to be more confident. The fact that for Flo it’s vintage fashion is even better. We dressed up more in the 1950s/60s and I felt the author truly expressed that era in Nancy’s clothes. I enjoy nothing more than vintage shopping with my stepdaughters and often wear 1950s styles myself so I understood how Flo felt putting on clothing she had made. It’s almost as if the clothing change, as well as the different surroundings made Flo question her life and explore who she was a little more. We are all different on holiday and when working with women who have low confidence, I often ask what they enjoy on holiday and tell them to take a little of that holiday spirit into everyday life. For Flo. while she’s travelling she gets to think about what’s gone wrong in her relationship. We are privy to her innermost thoughts and feelings and can slowly piece together what has happened between her and her partner Seamus. The break gives her space, and a bit of perspective in the shape of a friend she was told to look up when she gets to Paris. Will this, slightly more sophisticated, man make Nancy rethink her relationship and move on or will it help her realise that Seamus is still the one for her?
This is a great second lockdown read because it made me feel like I’d been on holiday myself! It also let me spend a little bit of time in Venice, which was a bonus considering I’d had to cancel my honeymoon there in the spring. It deals with the issue of losing a child and how heart wrenching that is. The author deals well with this difficult topic, showing the stigma of being an unmarried mother in the 1950s while still being able to keep the story light, which is an extremely difficult tightrope to walk. Different ways of grieving are also explored, and how hard it can be if a couple grieve in different ways or at different rates. The key to everything in this book is good honest communication and not keeping secrets within families. I think the difference between the 1950s and our more open, confessional society is well handled. I enjoyed this one so much I bought a finished copy for my bookshelves and I’m sure it’s one I’ll dip back into from time to time. This is a lovely story, full of likeable characters, stunning locations and beautiful fashion. I heartily recommend it.
Several years ago I was in London for the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum. We were staying in Kensington and spent a day browsing the second hand shops for clothes but also for books. In a second hand bookshop I came across a proof copy of Debbie Howell’s first book. I read it that evening in the hotel, and finished it on the train home the next day. My friend was equally gripped. So, I was delighted to be granted the ARC copy of her latest novel The Vow on NetGalley.
This was a very quick read, mainly due to fact I struggled to put it down! Amy, a herbalist who lives near Brighton, is looking forward to her dream wedding. She never imagined she’d be lucky enough to get a second chance at love, but here she is living with the man she’s about to marry. Her daughter Jess has just gone to university so it’s just the two of them. Upstairs hangs the pink wedding dress she chose alongside a soft grey gown for her daughter. One morning, as she delivers an order to a patient, Amy is stopped by an old lady in the street who tells her to be careful because her fiancé isn’t what he seems. Slightly shaken Jess takes a call from her fiancé Matt, he seems distracted and tells her he’ll be late home because he’s out with a client. He says ‘take care, babe’ – something he never says. Jess is unsettled, but tries to carry on as normal. When Matt doesn’t return that night she goes to bed fully expecting him to be next to her as she wakes. However, his side of the bed is still empty. This is just the start of a nightmare scenario for Amy and her daughter Jess – where is Matt, who is he and do the secrets of the past always come back to haunt us?
This is an engaging thriller from Debbie Howells. I love the way she builds the kind, gentle character of Amy, to the point where we believe in her fairy tale wedding and relationship. When the narrator changes to a second character it allows us to re-evaluate everything we know. Is Amy telling us the truth or is she deluded and dangerous? I really wasn’t sure till the very end. I think her job as a herbalist also helps to make her trustworthy, because when someone is a healer we imagine them as empathic, kind and gentle – certainly not capable of murder. The other narrator also has a credible role. She works as a solicitor so the police might lean towards believing her version of events. I loved the opposing chapters, especially when we start to encounter a third, unnamed narrator. We have no idea which woman is speaking about the events of 1996, or whether it’s a third party. Howells drops enough red herrings to distract us – the WPC’s strangely selective answering machine, Amy’s friend who claims to have been propositioned by Matt at a party, or even one of the other women that have become Matt’s victims over the years.
The subject of coercive control has been utilised a lot in fiction of late and here it is only part of the story, but explained well nevertheless, The discussion of gaslighting was accurate and explains why we have a fairytale narrative about Matt from Amy whereas her daughter and her friends have seen a slightly different picture. The scene where he has convinced the normally vegan Amy to eat meat was particularly chilling. The ending, when it came, was slightly too sudden. I find this often happens when reading kindle books because if I don’t keep the word count displayed I don’t have any idea where I am in the book. On the whole this was a very enjoyable and rather addictive thriller that can easily be devoured greedily in a weekend.
Meet The Author
After self-publishing three women’s commercial fiction novels, Debbie wrote The Bones of You, her first psychological thriller. It was a Sunday Times bestseller and picked for the Richard and Judy book club. Three more have followed, The Beauty of The End, The Death of Her and Her Sister’s Lie, all published by Pan Macmillan
Anna Wharton’s debut, The Imposter, is a gripping story of obsession, loneliness and the lies we tell ourselves in order to live with ourselves . . .
I wanted to put out a preview of this debut novel by Anna Wharton because I enjoyed it so much. The novel follows a young woman by the name of Chloe whose background in care has lead to an isolated and lonely existence in the world.
Chloe lives a quiet life. Working as a newspaper archivist in the day and taking care of her Nan in the evening, she’s happy simply to read about the lives of others as she files away the news clippings from the safety of her desk.
But there’s one story that she can’t stop thinking about. The case of Angie Kyle – a girl, Chloe’s age, who went missing as a child. A girl whose parents never gave up hope.
When Chloe’s Nan gets moved into a nursing home, leaving Chloe on the brink of homelessness, she takes a desperate step: answering an ad to be a lodger in the missing girl’s family home. It could be the perfect opportunity to get closer to the story she’s read so much about. But it’s not long until she realizes this couple aren’t all they seem from the outside . . .
But with everyone in the house hiding something, the question is – whose secrets are the most dangerous?
I loved this book because of its portrayal of someone potentially living with borderline personality disorder. Chloe is rootless and with her Nan taken away, she is also purposeless. Losing her job at her beloved archive is disastrous, because it is as if her last mooring rope is cut. When she becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Angela Kyle. Borderline personalities tend to have a disorganised background, and exhibit impulsive behaviour. They also have very intense but short relationships, a description that fits Chloe perfectly. She moves into the Kyle’s home and forms an intense bond with Maureen; they are a mother who has lost a daughter and a daughter who has never known maternal love. As the tension builds I couldn’t stop reading and went on late into the night. It also has a double reveal at the end – one of which had me wanting to start reading again!
My review will be out near publication day, but I want to thank Anna Wharton and NetGalley for my proof copy in exchange for an honest review.
Remembrance Sunday is going to be very different this year as we’re in lockdown, so I’ve decided to remember in the way we book bloggers do; by writing about books on war and its aftermath. My relationship with remembrance has changed enormously as I’ve grown older. I’ve gone from sixth form pacifist, through research on representations of disability at university to a greater understanding of the aftermath of the Great War. Through marriage into a Polish family I understood from first hand accounts how war shatters, dislocates and transforms families. Then through the deaths of my husband and his family, beyond my own personal grief, I felt a sense of an important story being lost. I realised what happens when we lose those that bore witness both to the Holocaust and both world wars. Now after spending a few years with my fiancé, a veteran of 22 years in the RAF, I began to understand more about service and the effects that war can have on the minds of those who undertake a career in the military. I’ve learned that I can be a pacifist, but understand other people’s experiences and empathise with them. Remembrance for me isn’t about glory, it’s simply about remembering servicemen’s sacrifices as well as their families. For me these weekends are remembering the effects war has had on all people, the men at war and the women they left behind. So over these two days I want to share with you a list of books about both world wars, from many different perspectives. It’s not an exhaustive list, nor does it cover the classic war novels or non-fiction. It’s simply a very personal journey through books I’ve read that stayed with me, books you might not think of as ‘war’ novels and what they taught me about wartime experience.
WWI and it’s Aftermath
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence – I think most people would be surprised to see D.H. Lawrence’s novel on a list of war novels, but this was one of the books I read about disability post – WWI. The war left 9.5 million people dead, but for an estimated 20 million service men the effects of war lasted long after the guns fell silent. In Britain alone 2 million men came home with a disability from facial disfigurement, blindness, lung damage, amputations or shell-shock. Lady Chatterley is caught between two men affected by their service in the Great War. Her husband Clifford Chatterley has been left a ‘cripple’, a wheelchair user who is struggling both physically and mentally. He feels the pressure of being responsible for his family estate and its future. He can no longer perform sexually, but must have an heir, so informs his wife she may have an affair with someone with the caveat that they are of the same social class. Connie feels coldness from her husband, he spends a lot of time with his nurse, and is preoccupied with the engineering of his wheelchair and the machinery of the mine. His world now revolves around the mind. Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper, is his opposite. Connie first encounters him making pens for the pheasant chicks and he lets her hold one. This is no coincidence, Lawrence is aligning him with fertility, nature and the physicality of living, and loving. He desires Connie, something she has not felt for a long time. Their love making is outdoors, they run naked in the rain, and thread flowers through their hair. However, Mellors isn’t unaffected by war. His scars are more mental, he needs the peace of the outdoors, his simple life and to be accepted wholly as he is. He doesn’t see Connie as an aristocratic lady of the manor, he sees her as a woman. Their love story is actually quite beautiful and borne from all of their experiences of war.
Photographer of the Lost and When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott – These are the most recent books I’ve read based on the Great War and they are truly incredible. I have just taken part in the blog tour for the second novel and I was so moved by the story of a man who doesn’t know who he is. With the backdrop of the burial of the unknown warrior we see a man, named ‘Adam’ by the police, who remembers nothing but wears the uniform of a soldier. He is taken into the care of another man coming to terms with his own war. Hawthorn thinks that with talking therapy, and a range of other techniques, he will gradually remember. Eventually, he has the idea of putting his picture in a national newspaper because surely someone will recognise him? Yet three women come forward claiming he is theirs; their Mark, their Robert, their Ellis. In this way the author cleverly shows us the cost of war to the women left behind. This novel is haunting and complex, a society laid bare emotionally through the tale of a warrior, unknown by name and rank.
In Photographer of the Lost we meet Edie. It’s 1921 and as people are putting their lives back together, coming to terms with loss or welcoming men back home, Edie’s husband Francis is still missing in action. So why did she receive a postcard from him? Unable to move on she starts to search for him, but she is not alone. Francis’s brother Harry is at the Western Front photographing grave sites for grieving families, but he also wants to find his brother. Their paths converge and together they start to piece together the truth. I love that this book covers a period of the war often forgotten. We often imagine that wars end and life carries on neatly, but the truth is some people are left never knowing what happened to their loved ones. Scott writes about the in-between people, the lost, broken and the left behind. I loved both novels.
Spare Brides by Adele Parks – This is a great book, set in the early 1920s – a decade promising glamour and progress, focuses solely on women’s post-war experience in the story of four friends. This is a generation touched by trauma and loss, especially for Sarah whose husband died in the war. Lydia’s husband was safe behind a desk in London, but she can’t help feeling he’s a coward compared to the men who fought. Ava feels suddenly restricted by the men’s return, after the newfound freedom she felt in the war. In fact so few have returned that those without husbands will have to be beautiful or maybe wealthy enough to shore up an aristocratic estate crippled by the loss of heirs and death duties. Poor lonely Beatrice has neither and looks likely to become a Spare Bride. Beatrice is the reason i fell in love with this book, because she was the answer to a question I’d always asked myself when working in a nursing home back in the 1990’s. I looked after three pairs of sisters and out of the six women, only one had been married. I should have realised but didn’t at 19, that the reason was the Great War. I felt for Beatrice who would have excelled at university and in an academic career, but is like a square peg being forced through the round hole of the old ways. When one of these women encounters a handsome soldier, still haunted by his past, it sets off an explosive chain of events. Adele Parks attention to detail for her settings, the women’s clothing and that feel of luxury in this set of friends is brilliant. It also gives us insight into how the initial trauma ripples out into family and friends, then down the generations.
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – like many people I first read this novel at university and without the incredible background to modernism we received at the same time I think I might have dismissed this as a very slight book. It is stream of consciousness in style and on the face of it is about a middle class woman going out to buy flowers. However, as always with Woolf there is so much more going on. It’s not long before other lives and voices join in and it becomes a very shattered and multi-layered narrative. This was done deliberately to have several different effects: it showed that what is a normal day for one person can be extraordinary for someone else; that what we see can be very different from what’s going on inside; to break away from the traditional linear narrative common to Victorian literature and represent the feeling of post-war Britain, broken up and with parts missing. The more obvious reference to war is the character of Septimus Smith, a veteran who is suffering from shell-shock. A car backfiring in the street is nothing to most people, but for Septimus it is a trigger taking him straight back to the battlefield. His wife is desperately trying to understand but struggling to know what to do. He has a mental health problem in a time that doesn’t have the knowledge or resources to help him. Mrs Dalloway herself shows signs of neuroses, an inability to deal with life or to reconcile the society she’s in with her inner self. In that way both of these characters are the same, their inner lives leave them struggling with the roles society expects of them; the hostess and the hero.
A Very Long Engagementby Sebastien Japrisot – This is a beautiful novel translated from French and it caught my attention for two different reasons. It was a story of war from the French perspective and our heroine Mathilde has a disability. I came across it during my dissertation research at university and saw the film starring Audrey Tatou. The novel is a mix of love story, war account and mystery. It starts in January 1917, when five wounded french soldiers are bound and forced into no-man’s land at Picardy, left to be caught in the crossfire between French and German troops. Two years later Mathilde Donnay, who has been a wheelchair user since childhood, sets out to find what happened to her fiancé who went missing in action. The lack of a definite answer to whether he’s alive or not sends her on a mission to determine his fate. She has been given a hint, in a letter from a dying soldier, that the official version might not be all it seems. Mathilde is a determined, shrewd and sarcastic soul and I love her resilience and ingenuity. Through sheer determination she uncovers a web of deception and coincidence, but she also learns a lot about what her fiancé’s war experience might have been like. She starts to uncover the horrors, courage and incredible kindnesses of war so gains an understanding of the men’s experience, beyond that of most other women. The men were cold, starving, dirty and infested by lice in trenches overrun with rats and relentless mud. One of the things I enjoy most is that her disability is actually an aid to finding information. Most officials see her as harmless and she willingly uses their assumptions about what she can and can’t do, if it will get her further on the road to the truth. This book shows the effects of the war on those left behind and a wonderful warmth from surviving soldiers for their fallen comrades. We don’t find out what happened to Mathilde’s fiancé till the very end, but it engaged me completely until that moment.
The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason – When WWI spreads across Europe in 1914, Lucien is in Vienna training to be a doctor. Inspired by the thought of performing surgery on heroic soldiers in a battlefield hospital, he enlists and is sent to the remote Carpathian Mountains. Rather than the well organised hospital he expected he finds a commandeered church that is freezing cold and riddled with typhus. There are no doctors, just one lone and mysterious nurse who is expecting a surgeon, but Lucius is only 22 and has never even used a scalpel. He was expecting to be trained by battle hardened surgeons. The lessons he has to learn are fairly brutal ones, the surgery he has to perform is rudimentary and a long way from a clinical operating theatre in Vienna. Even more unsettling, he finds himself falling in love with Sister Margarete. Then one day a soldier appears with strange drawings in his uniform, he is named Horvath and seems beyond saving. Lucius makes a decision that changes the course of the war for all of them. I enjoyed that this book didn’t stint on its battlefield detail, there are times you might even wince a bit, but it’s clear that the author has put in the research on what was possible at the time for different injuries. As always, it is the nervous disorders that are the most difficult to treat. However, the beauty of the writing, the stories of the men and the love story balance out this gruesome detail. The story emphasises the separation of people, the precariousness of life and the triumph of love in even the most dire circumstances.
And more …
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Wake by Anna Hope
Tomorrow I will share some thoughts on novels about WWII.
Yesterday, I shared a post about some of the novels I’ve read and enjoyed based during WWI and it’s aftermath. Today I’d like to share with you some of the books that made me think about the experiences of WW2. As I mentioned yesterday, I married into a Polish family in 2001 and this gave me a totally different perspective on the war. My mother-in-law was a child in the Warsaw Ghetto and was sent through the sewer system to escape without either of her parents in the first instance; her father was somewhere fighting and when an opportunity to save her daughter came along, her mother grasped it with both hands. They eventually reunited in England, but didn’t find Hana’s father. Years later they found him; he had ended up in the USA, believing both of them to be dead. Several years after the war he had married again and had another daughter. I couldn’t imagine this type of dislocation; it seems unthinkable that we might not know where our loved ones are or even whether they’re still alive. Yet if we can cast our minds back to a world with nothing but snail mail, where both parties have been taken from their country of origin it’s conceivable that it would take some time and determination to find each other. Hana bore no ill will to her half-sister, they were treated as family and often visited each other, to and fro across the pond. In fact, my late husband was attending a family wedding with them in Cape Cod when 9/11 happened.
My father-in-law’s story was just as terrible and it still breaks my heart to think of them both going through so much at such a young age. When war broke out my father-in-law Aleks and his younger brother were living in Krakow with their mother. Their father was an officer in the army and believing the family to be a danger, Aleks was detained with his brother and mum. Eventually they were taken to a camp in Siberia by the Russians, where his younger brother sadly died. Somehow, Aleks escaped with his mother to join a group of Polish resistance living in the forest. Once the war was over, they were refugees and slowly made their way to England. I never met my mother-in-law, she died in a car accident in the 1990s. My husband died in 2007, followed by his father in 2016 and finally my brother-in-law Jan a year later. I have felt like the holder of these stories, because I don’t think they were written down anywhere. Eventually as the wider family is lost, these incredible lives will be undocumented. In reading the following novels I have gained more understanding about their experiences and feel closer to them. Reading has allowed me to put myself in their shoes, through the different characters and aspects of the story. Reading has made my in- law’s personal histories all the more extraordinary. Again this list of novels is not an exhaustive list of WWII fiction. They are just some of the books I’ve read that touched me in some way and opened up the experiences of those times. Although Remembrance Sunday is for our servicemen and women – made all the more important as I’m now marrying a RAF veteran – it tends to take my mind back to all those who have sacrificed something, especially in our two world wars. Whether it’s from the military point of view, or that of a widow, resistance fighter, or Holocaust survivor, it is so important to value and share these histories and make sure that we never forget them.
Atonement by Ian McEwan – Ian McEwan is such an incredible writer and this novel will always stay with me. I read the book before I saw the film and it was one of the few times where I haven’t been disappointed with the adaptation. Although the crucial events that send Robbie and Cecilia apart are before the war breaks out, the events that follow capture perfectly that sense of loved ones being torn apart by war. Robbie is the gardener’s son and has grown up in a cottage on the estate of the Tallis family. When his father dies Robbie and his mother stay on, and the family support Robbie to go to university at the same time as their eldest daughter Cecilia. We join the family in the heat of summer 1935 and watch events through the eyes of the much neglected younger sister Briony. Briony is a precocious child who wants to be a writer, creating plays to fill her time but also to control an environment where both her parents are so distant. Crucially, she seems to understand human behaviour, but is not emotionally mature enough to understand what really happens over one afternoon and evening that summer. She witnesses an exchange between Robbie and Cecilia, that is a moment of desire and flirtation. We realise this is a liaison that has grown at university; when away from the house Robbie has not been the gardener’s boy, but a contemporary of Cecilia’s. When later that evening a young guest at the house is attacked in the grounds by a man, Briony jumps to a terrible conclusion and names Robbie as the possible attacker. Accused of a crime he hasn’t committed Robbie faces a choice as war breaks out; prison or conscription into the army. He chooses to enlist, while Cecilia goes to London to train as a nurse. They are now parted, with just one last meeting where Cecilia begs him to come back to her. The novel is so evocative of the period, from the rather enclosed and privileged world of a landed estate to a completely changed landscape of war torn France for Robbie and a sandbagged, under attack London for Cecilia. The book is encased within a present day narrative where an older Briony now an author, is trying to unravel and understand the events of that summer and it’s aftermath through writing. We realise the story we are reading is her narrative, but will she finally write the truth and consequences of what she’s or will she write a fiction? The sections where Robbie is trudging through France, trying to get the coast where they will be evacuated is particularly poignant. Holed up in a bombed out house on the coast, we do not know if he will survive and come back for Cecilia. We need Briony to finish her narrative. A haunting, heartbreaking, piece of meta fiction from McEwan that really captures its period through a young generation who might lose everything they love to serve their country.
When We Fall by Carolyn Kirby – this book helped me to understand aspects of my father-in-law’s story that I’d only been able to guess at before. We follow Polish pilot Stefan through the eyes of two brave women helping the cause as best they can: Vee is a pilot with the ATS who moved military aircraft around the country to different bases; Ewa is Stefan’s sweetheart from his home town of Poznań and helps her father run their guest house while secretly running messages for the Polish resistance. Captured by the Russians, Stefan is witness to the Katyn massacre, an atrocity supposedly carried out by German forces. He then spends the rest of the war working trying to expose the truth of the massacre, dragging both women into his acts of espionage. Vee is very taken with the handsome and mysterious Polish pilot, but does he return her feelings or is she simply a means to an end? This book is beautifully researched and immersed me completely into these women’s lives. I love the way this book highlights women’s roles in the war and cleverly saves Stefan’s recollection of the massacre to the end, a device that makes sense of his actions and is truly devastating all at the same time.
A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson – this novel is the follow up to Atkinson incredible novel Life After Life which tells the story of the 20th Century through the life of a young girl called Ursula Todd. This companion novel follows the life of her younger brother Ted and hops about from present day York where Ted is an old man, across the 20th Century to WWII and the how it affects the years that follow. Using her incredible skill with time slip we keep going back to his war as a bomber pilot, where missions started against strategic resources but then moved on to civilian targets. We see his regard for every single life lost summed up as Aunt Izzy consumes a skylark. For Ted it isn’t just one skylark, but the next generation of skylarks and on into the future where a huge flock is now silenced. He must ponder on the many generations he snuffed out in those later bombing raids. However, I also found it very moving that Atkinson beautifully illustrates how the generations scarred by war passed that trauma on to their children. I’ve read psychological research that posits the theory of WWI veterans passing trauma to their children, who then experienced WWII. The aftermath being the following generations mental ill health. While a ‘stiff upper lip’ may be vital in wartime, it can feel confining or even be dangerous to young people in peacetime. That 1960s exploration of feelings and pacifism was antithesis to parents who’d known the rigours of military training and the hardship of battle. Similarly, we see that Ted has not been happy in his marriage but stayed with his wife, apart from one war time indiscretion full of the feeling missing from his marriage. He wonders at his daughter’s ability to accept relationship breakdown solely for reasons of personal happiness. The main difficulty of living through the 20th Century for Ted is that he has done so, while others didn’t. I won’t reveal the end, but I was dreading Ted’s death because I’d become so fond of him. Atkinson plays with her characters though, and a big reveal towards the end reduced me to tears. Exceptional.
The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman – This book probably isn’t thought of as a traditional war novel, but despite its supernatural elements it has a moving depiction of war and how the Holocaust affected Jewish communities across Europe. We join Hanni Kohn and her daughter Lea in Berlin at the beginning of WWII.The verbal propaganda against German Jews is now turning into action and after Lea is attacked by a soldier on her way home, Hanni intervenes with terrible consequences. Now Hanni knows she must get Lea out of Berlin, but how can they both leave when Hanni is looking after her elderly mother. Desperately looking for some way of protecting Lea, Hanni falls on the idea of a Golem – a mythical Jewish creature animated from clay. Hoffman’s story blends historical fact, outlining the fate of Jews in Berlin and France while the world claimed ignorance, with the story of the four girls. One is lost before they leave the country leaving behind a loved one intent on getting their revenge. There are other characters in the novel bringing their own past and perspective to the story. Despite having their own narrative Hoffman cleverly weaves their stories together and they all encounter each other at some time during the war. On Lea and Ava’s travels in France we meet Julien, his brother Victor and their parents. As a Jewish family resident in Paris their parents imagine themselves safe from the fate of Jewish refugees like Lea and Ava. At huge personal risk they let Lea and Ava join the household as their servant Marianne has left that morning. Ava takes to kitchen work while Lea forms a friendship with Juliet. Victor is mourning Marianne who we follow back to her father’s farm in the mountains bordering Switzerland. Victor decides to leave soon after, but his travels take him into the Resistance first where he meets a certain young woman hellbent on revenge. Julien is left behind, when Ava and Lea leave, and he watches as his parent’s assumptions of safety are all proved wrong and they are lead to a stadium in burning heat. They are stripped of their jewellery and other valuables and kept without sanitation or food until they can be transported to the death camps, bewildered and broken. Julien hatches a last minute plan and manages to slip out of the stadium and into the labyrinth of streets until a special messenger gives him an idea of where Lea might be. This book is a story of finding ways to survive, whether that be fighting, hiding, building a supernatural protector or falling in love.
The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult – For me this beautiful novel is Jodi Picoult’s best. It weaves three different narratives. In the present day Sage Singer is a baker, seemingly hiding by taking a night shift at a local bakery and cafe, and taking care of her Grandma in the day. She has no friends and hides her face with a hoodie at all times. Sage feels a massive guilt about something and her face is hidden due to a large scar. One day as she’s late leaving the bakery, she meets an elderly customer Josef Weber and they make a connection. They become unlikely friends but each has a scar they are hiding – Josef discloses to Sage a secret about his past, one that will call her own identity into question and challenge their newfound friendship forever. He asks a favour of Sage, who agonises over whether she can grant his wish. Woven with this is a very dark fairytale, set in an Eastern-European forest where a young girl is part of a baking family. We learn that this strange tale is told by Sage’s grandmother. As Sage wrestles with Josef’s disclosure about the war, she starts to hear her grandmother’s incredible story. Minka went to Auschwitz where her knowledge of German brings her to the attention of the treasurer of the camp, and he makes her his assistant. He tells her he is a good man, who was forced to serve his country this way. He has a much more brutal brother at the camp and sets himself apart from his atrocities. Minke is sickened by the work they do gathering and valuing prisoner’s belongings once they are sent to the chambers, but she knows it is the only thing keeping her alive. That, and her strange ‘upior’ story which fascinates the treasurer. When Sage takes the step of contacting Leo, a lawyer for a commission hunting Nazi’s who escaped justice she reports Josef as an officer in a concentration camp. Now she must struggle with a complex set of moral choices; does her Jewish background mean she must implicate Josef? As she ponders whether she can betray her friend, Sage must confront her own guilt and the end of her grandmother’s story. The final reveal is heart wrenching.
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
The second Kate Atkinson book in my selection is set in 1940s London and a tale of wartime espionage. Juliet Armstrong is only 18 when she is recruited to an obscure department of MI5. Far from exciting, she finds the job of tracking and translating the comings and going’s of Nazis and their sympathisers by turns terrifying and boring. When the war is over, she imagines those days far behind her but ten years later, when Juliet is working at the BBC she is confronted by figures from her wartime past. She was monitoring British Nationalists such as those who rose up with Oswald Moseley and warns the reader not to confuse patriotism with nationalism. Nationalism is only a step away from fascism. I loved that there were parts of the novel that resonate into current politics and struggles for equality. Juliet is a naive girl in a very male environment and soon finds herself pursued by a superior. He tells her not to worry about the more serious people she’s monitoring. He tells her to watch out for clowns; clowns are dangerous and then no one’s laughing. I loved Juliet, she’s such an intelligent and incisive operative, with flashes of humour. She observes that the Russians had been their enemies, then allies and now enemies again. The Germans were enemies and now allies. On and on it would go forever, she muses in later life and I could imagine her adding ‘in the hands of men’. This is not as emotive as other books on the list, but the war wasn’t just won on the battlefield, it was also won by intelligence gatherers in dusty offices in London.
The Nightwatch by Sarah Waters – I loved Sarah Water’s’ Victorian fiction so took a while to start this novel set in the Blitz. I was wrong to wait because this book is a masterpiece. It tells the story of four Londoners – three women and one man – during 1940/41. Kay has been given space during the war to work out who she is. She’s an ambulance driver, and is at full throttle most of the time, but lately she’s been wearing masculine clothes and feels a restless energy inside her. Helen is sweet and much loved by her family, but holds a secret deep within. Viv is the glamour girl, she is fiercely loyal to her soldier lover but is that loyalty misplaced? Then there’s Duncan who is fighting demons from his war experience. All of their lives intersect, sometimes in surprising ways and tragic circumstances. What I love about this novel is its structure. Instead of meeting our characters and moving forwards with them, we work backwards and gradually questions are answered and behaviour is explained. I fell in love with the character of Viv, who is larger than life, but so open and easy to hurt. Her descriptions of London in the Blitz are so vivid and terrifying. The thought that my home, my haven and place where all my favourite things and people are could be wiped out in a second while I’m at work was so scary. I could imagine that level of threat and insecurity every day would wear you down over time and leave a long term scar. This had a brilliant sense of time and place, a London we would recognise, but made utterly foreign.
The Women at Hitler’s Table by Rosella Postorino – the story of Rosa, one of ten women chosen to taste Hitler’s food for poison. She does this to survive but knows that every bite may be her last.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – a beautiful story of a blind French girl and a young German boy in occupied France. Marie-Laure and her father have fled to St Malo, hiding a precious jewel from the museum where he works. Werner has learned to fix and use radios to the extent that he becomes useful to the German cause. This book is about two people meeting and trying to be good to each other in terrible circumstances.
The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak – this is an incredible novel weaving stories of book thief Liesel, Death himself, and the Jewish man Leisel’s family hide in their basement. Definitely lives up the hype.
I want to make honourable mention of the very recent book A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington. Not a war novel, but there is a section where our lead character is given a letter after her mother’s death. They have a difficult relationship, and when her mother relates her wartime experience we understand why this woman could not love her daughter. The letter is beautifully written, told without pity or sentiment, and is utterly devastating.
This was one of those novels that came as a complete surprise. I had no idea what to expect as I’d never read Joe Heap’s work before, but what started out adagio builds to an absolute crescendo of emotion and I shed tears over Ella’s story. In the present, we meet Ella as an old lady shipwrecked on a yacht called Mnemosyne with a small baby. She’s struggling physically and seems forgetful, whether through injury or age we don’t know at first. Then we are taken back to different points in her life, significant moments with specific people. Whether with her for a short or long time, these are people she has lost and their presence had a massive impact on her life. Our first flashback takes us to meet Ella when she’s a little girl, living in a Glasgow tenement and spending time after school between her home and that of her friend Rene. Rene has a beautiful guitar, made for her by her father and Ella is quite jealous of it, wishing she had a father who could make such things. One evening, after school Ella wants to avoid going home because she’s been in trouble and keeps Rene out in the cold on a local playground. Rene has severe asthma. The next morning, when Ella wakes she senses something wrong and when she goes into the main room where her parents are up and making breakfast she sees Rene’s guitar and knows immediately. Her friend is gone.
This loss when she is so young, sets in motion events that will resonate throughout her life. First, it brings her into contact with Rene’s brother Robert who is a few years older. He brings her a parcel and she expects something terrible, some retribution or punishment for what she sees as her culpability in his sister’s death. What she opens is a block of ‘tablet’ a Scottish fudge-like sweet made by their mother with sugar and condensed milk. This gift cements their friendship, one which will last their entire lives. Secondly, after vowing never to look at Rene’s guitar and stuffing it under the bed, she decides to learn and her father takes her to a music shop for a beginner’s guitar book. Yet Ella is drawn to something different. She picks up a book of seven guitar exercises featuring songs that encompass stages of life, from the child to the crone. Called The Songs of the Dead, the shop owner is unsure whether it’s suitable for a child but Ella is sure. It is each of these exercises that separates the sections of the book. The structure is incredibly effective, it feels natural and organic rather than a forced device. Each section comprises the song, the memory and then Ella’s present situation with an unusual element – each person she has lost returns from the past with her.
It is never explained whether these visitations are supernatural in nature, whether Ella is hallucinating these characters or whether they’re a way of expressing how she remembers these people’s contribution to her life. Each one brings something to the present, whether it is the mechanical expertise needed to pump out the water in the hold, or a philosophical context to Ella’s experience. I loved how her friend Sandy describes life, death and time using the vinyl record as inspiration. He believes that we all still exist in time, even after death. In the same way other music tracks exist on a record, while we’re playing just one. The other tracks are always there, we have the memory of playing them, or anticipate hearing them again. They’re not wiped the moment a needle leaves the groove. There’s also the concept of two types of time; the time measured by clocks, work hours and timetables and a different kind of internal time. It’s something I discovered through meditation, but we all experience it, from time flying when we’re having fun or the perception that summer holidays used to last forever when we were children. Time seems to speed up as we get older, it barely seems like we’ve got one Christmas over before another is round the corner. Ella’s means of discovering slow time is destructive, but there are positive ways to slow down our internal time such as mindfulness. For Ella, time is coming full circle, and she’s slowly revisiting each life that touched hers either for a moment or for a lifetime. Each character is so fully realised. I loved Lester, a one time lover of Ella’s who helps her cope with the baby when he’s ill. Mai was so touching. She’s a young woman who meets Ella briefly in the labour ward as they both give birth to their children. In finding each other again Ella can fill in the gaps in Mai’s knowledge and reacquaint her with a son she never knew. In return Mai can help Ella face a loss she hadn’t fully apprehended. Each person’s story is so emotional and so real. I love that the author doesn’t judge any of the characters we meet, even where their influence on Ella isn’t always a positive one. We see them as fully rounded people and with such fondness, possibly because we’re seeing them through Ella’s lens and her love for them shines through.
The settings are also vivid. I throughly enjoyed Ella’s period in London, playing as a session guitarist and sharing a flat with Robert. Musicians come and go, and the flat is a whirlwind of jam sessions and parties. The 1960s were equally exciting as Ella becomes very sought after and chance finds her playing on tracks with some famous names. Of course the party can’t last and not all Ella’s experiences are happy ones, but she learns from each one. Her time as a nurse in a burns unit was also well drawn and as anyone who cares for others knows, there are patients who will remember what you did for them and others who get under your skin and stay with you forever. Like every life there are moments of bliss, excitement and love. Similarly there are moments of grief, dislocation and despair. All the time Robert is there, repeating like a musical refrain, rippling quietly under the surface of the music or occasionally becoming the main melody. We all have those people who come and go, who don’t always figure in our everyday lives, but who are constantly there. There were so many points where I thought of my own life. I thought of my friend Elliot who I was close with through school, and after university, and who I see intermittently but think of constantly. My friend Nigel who died only a couple of years ago, we were only friends for a few years but he taught me so much, made me laugh and simply let me sit in his house and relax when I was a full time carer and desperately needed an escape. I am one of those people who fall in love with people I meet regardless of age, gender or situation in life. So, when I’ve worked in care there have been patients who have stayed with me forever, especially a little 90 year old lady called Mary who could sit on her own hair. I would go in on my days off and wash and dry it for her and she often used to sneak up and put her little hand in mine and follow me about while I made beds and doled out biscuits. I’ve often wondered when my time comes who would come to meet me. Finally, a word on that gorgeous cover: where the plants grow from spring freshness to an autumnal hue towards the neck of the guitar signifying the seasons of life. For anyone who has lost someone this story is especially poignant, but somehow it manages to stop short of sentimentality. Instead it feels profound, honest and raw and left me with such a beautiful bittersweet afterglow.
About The Author
Joe Heap was born in 1986 and grew up in Bradford, the son of two teachers. His debut novel The Rules of Seeing won Best Debut at the Romantic Novel of the Year Awards in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Books Are My Bag Reader Awards. Joe lives in London with his girlfriend, their two sons and a cat who wishes they would get out of the house more often. This book is inspired by his mum and dad’s story.
A Note From Joe
At a summer season in Ramsgate, 1959, two ice skaters held a party. My grandfather, a Glaswegian saxophonist who would rather have gone to the pub, was convinced by a comedian on the same bill to come along. My grandmother, another one of the ice skaters, sat down next to him and spilt her drink in his lap. Though she has since denied it, her first words of note to him were ‘Oh no, not another Scot.’ Nobody could have guessed how much would spin off that moment, myself and this book included.
‘Gripping, beautifully written perfection.’ SOPHIE HANNAH
‘A masterpiece.’ LOUISE O’NEILL
‘Girl A,’ she said. ‘The girl who escaped. If anyone was going to make it, it was going to be you.’
Lex Gracie doesn’t want to think about her family. She doesn’t want to think about growing up in her parents’ House of Horrors. And she doesn’t want to think about her identity as Girl A: the girl who escaped. When her mother dies in prison and leaves Lex and her siblings the family home, she can’t run from her past any longer. Together with her sister, Evie, Lex intends to turn the House of Horrors into a force for good. But first she must come to terms with her six siblings – and with the childhood they shared.
Beautifully written and incredibly powerful, Girl A is a story of redemption, of horror, and of love. If you liked Room, My Dark Vanessa and We Need to Talk About Kevin, you will love this book.
Meet The Author
Abigail Dean was born in Manchester, and grew up in the Peak District. She graduated from Cambridge with a Double First in English. Formerly a Waterstones bookseller, she spent five years as a lawyer in London, and took summer 2018 off to work on her debut novel, Girl A, ahead of her thirtieth birthday. She now works as a lawyer for Google, and is currently writing her second novel, The Conspiracies.
Girl A sold in the UK after a 9-way auction, and also sold in auction in the US. The novel has since been acquired in 23 other territories, and television/film rights have sold to Sony.
Abigail has always loved reading, writing, and talking about books. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @AbigailSDean