The Lodger by Helen Scarlett

It’s 1919 and Grace Armstrong, like many other young women, is mourning the loss of her fiancé and brother in the Great War. She has done her best to move on – having served as a VAD nurse during the war, she is now pursuing a career as a journalist with the London periodical Nursing World – but she is still haunted by the thought that her fiancé Robert, reported missing in action at the Somme, could still be alive. Meanwhile her mother, struggling to cope with the death of Grace’s brother Edward, is under sedation in a nursing home. It’s a difficult time for the Armstrong family – and is about to get worse when their lodger, Elizabeth Smith, is found drowned in the River Thames.

Elizabeth had lodged with the family for eight years and she and Grace had become good friends. Unable to accept the verdict from the police that Elizabeth had committed suicide, Grace is determined to find out what really happened. The only person who is prepared to help her is Tom Monaghan, who fought with Edward in France, but as they begin to investigate Elizabeth’s death, they make some shocking discoveries about Grace’s friend.

This is Helen Scarlett’s second novel; I haven’t read her first, The Deception of Harriet Fleet, but both are standalones so that didn’t matter at all. I will probably look for that earlier book now, as I did enjoy this one. It’s a slow-paced novel, but I still found it quite gripping, mainly because of the vivid portrayal of a world emerging from war, with people attempting to move forward while still struggling with the trauma of the recent past. Nobody in the novel has come out of the war unscathed; we meet men left damaged both physically and mentally by the horrors of the trenches, families grieving for the deaths of loved ones – and perhaps worst of all, people like Grace who are unable to grieve properly without knowing whether their loved one is dead or alive. Grace sees Robert everywhere – in the street, on the bus, in her dreams – and feels that she’ll never be able to rebuild her life until she knows the truth.

I found the mystery element of the book less successful. The story of Elizabeth’s past seemed too far-fetched to be very convincing and as more and more of her secrets were uncovered I felt that the plot was in danger of becoming much too complicated. There’s also a romance for Grace which was predictable but satisfying, although I would have liked to have seen her spend more time with her love interest; that would have helped me to become more invested in their relationship.

Despite the few negative points I’ve mentioned, The Lodger is an atmospheric and moving novel and the image it evokes of a London in the aftermath of war is one that will stay with me.

Thanks to Quercus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 9/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

11 thoughts on “The Lodger by Helen Scarlett

  1. FictionFan says:

    This one is on my TBR, so I’m glad that you liked it overall despite some reservations. It was really the look at the after-effects of the war that attracted me to it from the blurb, so I’m glad you felt that she did that aspect well.

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