This is Adele Parks’ fifteenth novel but the first one I’ve read. Most of her others have contemporary settings and have never really appealed to me, but her most recent two are historical novels – Spare Brides, set in the 1920s, and this one, set during the First World War.
As the novel opens in March 1914, we meet Vivian Foster, a beautiful eighteen year old debutante who is enjoying the London season and not giving too much thought to rumours of war in Europe. Her main goal in life is to marry the rich, handsome Nathaniel Thorpe, but things don’t go according to plan and to avoid a scandal, Vivian is married off to Aubrey Owens, a man she doesn’t love. When war breaks out on their wedding day and Aubrey enlists as an officer in the army, Vivian finds herself living alone on his farm in the small village of Blackwell in Derbyshire.
The novel’s other main character is Howard Henderson, a talented and ambitious young playwright. Near the beginning of the war, Howard spends some time visiting the battlefields with a journalist friend and although he doesn’t take part in the fighting himself, he is shocked and appalled by what he witnesses. Returning to England he finds that he is under increasing pressure to enlist, but his experiences on the front line have left him convinced of the futility and barbarity of war. At a time when all fit and healthy young men are expected to go and fight for their country, Howard’s views make him very unpopular. When his path crosses with Vivian’s, a friendship begins to form and Howard must decide whether there are some things worth fighting for after all.
If You Go Away gets off to a slow start; I’m not sure that it was really necessary to spend so much time at the beginning giving us information on the backgrounds and personalities of our two main characters – I would have preferred to get to know them gradually through their words and actions. Once Vivian is in Blackwell and Howard is on his way to visit the trenches, though, the story really starts to pick up. While there is certainly a strong romantic element, this is more than just a love story – the scenes set in France and Belgium are vivid and dramatic, showing us the full horrors of war, while Vivian’s chapters also tackle other themes such as female friendships, unhappy marriages and the roles of women in society.
I disliked both Vivian and Howard at the start of the novel – particularly Vivian, who appeared to be very shallow and self-obsessed, interested only in money, clothes, parties and gossip. Fortunately, Vivian’s character does develop and change over the course of the novel and I eventually started to see another side to her. It seemed that being in the countryside away from the influence of her friends and family in London helps her to gain confidence and discover what is really important in life. As one of the village women tells her, “I do believe that one only earns the right to strong and cherished friendships once one has learnt to stand alone. You have to like yourself very much before you can expect others to”.
Through the characters of Vivian and Howard we see the changes that war brings to individuals, to communities and to the world. I have read a lot of other novels set during the Great War, but what makes this one different is that we are given the perspective of a conscientious objector. This is not an aspect of the war I’ve read about in any detail before and I found it fascinating. Because of the interesting questions and issues this novel raises, I found it a deeper and more thought-provoking read than I had expected it to be. There were one or two twists towards the end that I found difficult to believe, but I did enjoy this book and I hope Adele Parks will continue to write historical fiction as I think she does it very well.
Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review.