I realise I’ve been reading a lot about the 20th century recently, and especially the Second World War. My new book is set around D-Day, so I suppose it’s unsurprising that I’ve read a number of novels set in this period.
I’ll just mention three. First, Elizabeth Buchan’s The New Mrs Clifton, set in London in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Gus, an intelligence officer, returns from the war with Krista – the new Mrs Clifton - who he married secretly in Berlin. This is a terrible shock to everyone. His sisters are outraged, especially Julia, because her husband died in the conflict, a loss she finds impossible to forgive. Gus’s fiancée, Nella, who lives just around the corner and is a great friend of his sisters, feels utterly betrayed. The emaciated Krista has to face the inevitably hostility of all those around her, who can’t simply understand why Gus made the choice he did. The assumption is that she must have some hold over him. But what?
The mood of post-war London is vividly drawn, with all its privations. The difficulty of coming to terms with such great loss, as well as learning how to navigate peacetime life, feels utterly believable. The story, as it unfolds, is both appalling and fascinating. Elizabeth Buchan has created something powerful and moving in her story. I thoroughly recommend it.
The second book I’d recommend is Roma Tearne’s The Last Pier. In this, a community in small-town Suffolk has to come to terms with everything changing as War breaks out. In the earliest days of the outbreak of war a terrible blow falls upon two families in particular: the Maudsleys, who are farmers, and their good friends the Molinellos, Italian immigrants who run an ice-cream parlour.
The story is told through the eyes of Cecily Maudsley, who is just 13 when tragedy strikes. A little like Briony in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, Cecily sees everything, but understands very little of what she is witnessing. As the story unfolds, so too do the splintered memories of the events of the summer of 1939. It’s a complex plot, involving secrets and betrayals, misunderstandings and deceits. Roma Tearne paints with broad brushstrokes, creating a mesmerising if impressionistic narrative. Some may find that irritating, but the result is captivating and highly atmospheric.
Last but not least, I’d recommend Dear Mrs Bird by A.J. Pearce. This book seems to have been everywhere in recent weeks, but in case you missed it, the story was inspired by the chance discovery of a 1939 woman’s magazine. The main character, Emmy, finds herself working on just such a magazine and answering questions sent in to the problem page. She and her friend Bunty navigate life lived in London during the Blitz, and all its attendant horrors.
In many ways, this is an easy read – I certainly gobbled it up. But that would be to downplay the skill of the writer, who manages to strike the perfect balance between funny and heart-breaking. All in all, a wonderful and ultimately uplifting novel with real depth.
I’m someone who reads voraciously and widely. I’m always glad of recommendations, but I confess I also enjoy picking up books in charity shops. It’s a great way of discovering new authors and reading books that might never have come your way.
Having said that, Louis de Bernières is hardly unknown. But I’ll admit I somehow missed publication of The Dust that Falls from Dreams, which came out a few years ago. I read it over a cold January holiday curled up in front of the fire under a rug because I wasn’t feeling well. And I loved it.
The story is broadly about the impact of the First World War on the McCosh family. Rosie and her three sisters grow up in an eccentric household in Kent. Their neighbours are the Pitt boys on one side, and the Pendennis boys on the other. Their whole world changes, of course, when the War comes. The War has devastating consequences for each member of the family, and the effects are long lasting.
The book is a satisfying wodge – 500 pages plus – and has the feel of an epic, sweeping saga. It’s told from multiple viewpoints; a mix of narrative, letters and reportage. Because the chapters are short, it’s always tempting to read just one more section. In short, it’s a rich feast of a novel full of flavour.
The horrors of the trenches are often told, but somehow de Bernières manages to tell the story in a way that is vivid and fresh. Alongside the horror, we encounter the exhilaration of flying and the comradeship. The women left behind have their own struggles as they miss their loved ones, and find their own roles to play on the Home Front. Sadness and absurdity sit side by side as the story evolves. Central to the plot is a love story: a woman who can’t let go of her first love, and whose life becomes defined by loss.
There is excitement and horror and derring-do, and big themes, too. Love and death, obviously, but also religion. Rosie is a devout Anglo Catholic, while another character is a military chaplain. Class and gender politics enter in, as well, as all the societal rules change for the sisters and their household servants.
I won’t say too much about what happens, for fear of spoilers. Suffice it to say that the characters are real enough to be loveable and infuriating all at once. And I was so caught up in their world that I went straight out and bought the next book in the series (So Much of Life Left Over) because I really cared about what happened next in the lives of the central characters.
Another recent discovery addressing the same period of history is Dorothy Canfield’s The Deepening Stream. This book was published in 1930 – when of course the First World War was a vivid memory – and was a present to me from a friend. To my shame, I’d never heard of the author (also known as Dorothy Canfield Fisher) but she was a bestselling American writer in the early twentieth century. She was also an educational reformer and social activist; Eleanor Roosevelt named her one of the ten most influential women in the US. The Deepening Stream is semi-autobiographical, and culminates in an account of living through the First World War in Paris. I found it completely compelling. If you’re interested in reading it, you may struggle to find a copy in print. But I’d say it is well worth the search.
Like many readers, I was sad to hear of the death of the poet and novelist Helen Dunmore this summer. I was a huge fan, ever since in the very first book group I ever belonged to, I was introduced to her beautiful first novel Zennor in Darkness. Her descriptions, in particular, are utterly captivating - her ability to paint a picture so physical you can almost touch it quite remarkable.
Over the years I have read a number of her books, but not all of them. I dimly remember being mildly disappointed by one, a decade or so ago. (Almost certainly this was more about me than the quality of the novel. Sometimes a book disappoints at a particular moment for no reason other than it not being the right choice at the time.)
But this summer I picked up the remarkable Counting the Stars which is all about the Roman poet Catullus. I happened upon it in a charity shop; and the sheer pleasure of reading it reminded me what I was missing by allowing her work to fall off my radar. I quickly followed it with Mourning Ruby and Exposure.
The last of the three was probably my favourite. Helen Dunmore wrote with such skill, such panache that her work leaves the reader breathless (and the author green with jealousy). At one level, her novels have a silky smooth surface, they are so readable. Yet it would be wrong to think that there is anything superficial going on. Scratch the surface and you find a tightly wrought plot, immaculate historical research, and complex characters who linger long after you've reached the end of the story.
RIP Helen Dunmore. You will be much missed by your legions of admirers.
Above all else, I read fiction. I’m always (unreasonably) surprised when people tell me they never pick up a novel. A colleague said as much only yesterday. (This may of course have been a polite excuse for not having read my novel, but I think he genuinely was telling me that his idea of a restful read is academic Theology. He takes hefty tomes on holiday. No accounting for taste…)
From time to time, though, I read memoirs, mainly because I am sent them to review or because I am writing a feature about someone with a story to tell. Two memoirs I’ve really enjoyed this summer are Blue by John Sutherland and Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood.
Blue is a beautiful book. It’s about many things, but first and foremost it’s about a senior policeman’s breakdown. John Sutherland was flying high in the Metropolitan Police when he suffered a dramatic collapse. He writes extremely movingly about his mental health – and includes the best description of depression I have ever encountered. But it’s also a love letter to the Police. It’s not just the job John happened to do, but his vocation.
He’s absolutely passionate about policing, while clear eyed and honest about its shortcomings. It’s too easy to make lazy assumptions, judgement even, about professions you know little about. This book offers a real insight. And John was utterly charming, too. Reflective, honest and self-deprecating. You can read the interview here.
I read the book for its story – I had a commission, after all – but it stuck in my mind because it is so beautifully written, and profound. If you enjoyed Henry Marsh’s hugely popular book, Do No Harm, about being a neurosurgeon, you’ll enjoy Blue.
Priestdaddy is something else entirely. I’ve reviewed this for the Church Times but since my review hasn’t been published yet, I won’t say too much. For now, I’ll just say it’s a bit of a one-off. An American poet writes about her extraordinary upbringing. Her father is a Roman Catholic priest and a father of five. She writes with extraordinary beauty and brio. I thought it tailed off a bit towards the end, but it’s a roller-coaster read, which I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend.