Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore

One of the reading challenges I have been participating in during 2018 is the What’s in a Name? challenge which involves reading books with certain words in the title. Having reached November with only four of the six required books completed, it was looking unlikely that I would be able to finish the challenge, but I’m pleased to say that I have managed to squeeze the final two books into my December reading – starting with this one, Zennor in Darkness (a book with a title that begins with Z).

Published in 1993, Zennor in Darkness was Helen Dunmore’s first novel. I had high hopes for it, as I’ve enjoyed some of her others, particularly Exposure and Birdcage Walk. Unfortunately, although there were things that I liked about this one, I was slightly disappointed with it, even more so because most people who have read it seem to have loved it and I’m sorry that I couldn’t love it too.

The novel is set in 1917 in Zennor, a village on the coast of Cornwall where the author DH Lawrence lives for a while during the First World War. Hoping to find some peace and quiet away from the controversy caused by the recent publication of his novel, The Rainbow, Lawrence and his wife Frieda have decided to rent a cottage in Zennor where they can wait for the war to end and for a time when he may be able to resume his writing career. But even as Lawrence gets to know the local farming families and discovers the charms of rural life, he finds himself the centre of controversy yet again – this time because of Frieda, who happens to be German. The villagers view Frieda with suspicion, disapproving of her red stockings and her German songs, and convinced that she and Lawrence are sending signals to the U-boats lurking off the Cornish coast:

‘All the same though, there are things not right up there. They say they’ve put different coloured curtains up. In the same window.’
‘Why, whatever would they want to do that for?’
‘In the window looking over the sea.’
‘You mean -‘

One person who doesn’t care about the gossip and who is happy to befriend the Lawrences anyway is Clare Coyne, a young woman who lives with her widowed father. Clare is a talented artist and is helping to illustrate a new book her father is writing on botany; she is also in love with her cousin, John William Treveal, who is home on leave from the trenches before starting his training as an officer. The rest of the family are unaware of Clare’s feelings for John William, so she keeps her fears and worries for him to herself, hoping that as he has survived this long, he will continue to survive and will come back to her when the war is over.

The novel is partly about Clare’s relationship with DH Lawrence and partly about her love for John William, but I felt that the two elements of the story didn’t work together very well and could have formed the basis of two separate books. I found the central love story by far the most engaging and interesting aspect of the novel, while the inclusion of Lawrence added very little for me. I couldn’t help making comparisons with Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud, a very similar story about the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, where I thought the blending of real historical characters and fictional ones was more successful.

I did love the portrayal of life in a small village during the war, touching on topics such as shell shock, desertion and the effects of war not only on those who are fighting in it but on the loved ones they leave behind. The writing is certainly beautiful – both poetic and insightful, with some lovely descriptions – but books written in third person present tense are often a problem for me and that was the case here as I found it distracting and emotionally distancing. I think the writing style is what prevented me from enjoying this book as much as I’d hoped to. Not a favourite by Helen Dunmore, then, but I will continue to read her books and will hope for better luck next time.

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I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a Merry Christmas! I’ll be back soon with my books of the year, my December Commonplace Book and maybe another review or two before New Year.

The Poppy Field by Deborah Carr

2018 has been an eventful year in many ways and in November we marked the one hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War. I picked up Deborah Carr’s new novel, The Poppy Field, to read over the centenary weekend, but I’ve since fallen behind with my reviews, which is why I’m only posting about it now.

The Poppy Field has two narratives, one set in 2018 and the other in 1916-18. First, in the present day, we meet Gemma, a British trauma nurse who has taken some time away from her stressful job to work on the renovation of a farmhouse in Doullens, in Northern France. Her father has recently inherited it and wants to get it into a good enough condition to be able to sell. With the help of Tom, a man she meets in Doullens who offers to assist with the building work, Gemma begins the long and difficult task of restoring the house to its former beauty. During the refurbishment, they discover a bundle of old letters dating back to World War I, written by an Alice Le Breton, and as soon as Gemma settles down to start reading them, she becomes obsessed with finding out how Alice’s story will end.

The other thread of the novel follows Alice, a young woman from Jersey in the Channel Islands, who volunteers as a VAD nurse at a casualty clearing station near Doullens during the war. Working conditions at the station are challenging and often horrifying, as wounded soldiers are brought in from the front line and the doctors and nurses do their best to save lives with the limited medication and equipment available to them. In the midst of so much pain and suffering, Alice is still able to find some happiness when she falls in love with one of her patients – but in times of war life is uncertain and Alice knows that her dreams could be shattered in an instant.

Although Alice and Gemma are very different people, there are many parallels between their stories – they are both nurses, they have both reached important turning points in their lives, and they have both found themselves in the same part of France. They also each become involved in a romance, but while I found Alice’s very moving (as wartime romances usually are), I thought Gemma’s was less convincing and very predictable. She meets the man who will become her love interest almost as soon as she arrives in France and there’s no real suspense involved in wondering whether they will end up together or not. Gemma’s whole storyline felt like little more than a frame for Alice’s, but I find that’s often the case with dual-time period novels and I almost always prefer one narrative over the other.

Although I’d hoped for more from this book, I did still enjoy it, particularly the historical sections and the details of Alice’s nursing work. The two separate threads of the story tie together nicely towards the end and the novel as a whole is an interesting and poignant read.

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

Post of Honour by RF Delderfield

Post of Honour is the second book in RF Delderfield’s A Horseman Riding By trilogy which begins with Long Summer Day, one of my favourite reads of last year. For me, this second novel is not as good as the first, but still very readable.

As this book and the first one were originally published in 1966 as one very long volume, Post of Honour picks up the story just after Long Summer Day ends in 1911, dropping us straight back into the daily lives of the people of the Sorrel Valley. A few years go by with small dramas taking place – weddings, funerals, births, deaths, new friendships being formed and new romances beginning to blossom. And then, in 1914, war breaks out in Europe and life in the Valley will never be the same again.

Although I had allowed a whole year to pass between finishing the first book and picking up this one, I found that I had no problem remembering the characters and storylines. It was lovely to be reacquainted with old friends like the former street-urchin Ikey Palfrey, the wild, untameable Hazel Potter, suffragette Grace Lovell and, of course, our hero Paul Craddock, the squire of Shallowford. The first part of the book is devoted to the First World War, showing us how these characters and many others are affected, either directly or indirectly. One of the Valley men becomes a conscientious objector while others fight in the trenches and those left at home wait for news of their loved ones. It would be unrealistic for all of our much-loved characters to return from war unscathed – so, inevitably, there are some deaths and the next section of the novel looks at how the inhabitants of Shallowford and the Sorrel Valley recover from their losses and try to move on over the next two decades.

This book covers a much longer time span than the previous one and this, in addition to the number of deaths during the wartime chapters, means the introduction of lots of new characters from the second and third generations. One of the things I remember loving about Long Summer Day was the way Delderfield brought each character, even the minor ones, fully to life. However, I don’t think he does that quite as successfully in Post of Honour and I felt that many of the new characters were little more than names on the page. With the exceptions of two of Paul’s children – Simon and Mary – and Ikey’s son, the strangely named Rumble Patrick, I simply wasn’t very interested in any of the others.

By the end of the book, another world war has begun, and I do want to see how Paul and his friends and family will fare. I will be reading the third book in the trilogy, The Green Gauntlet, but after that I’m looking forward to leaving the Sorrel Valley behind and trying some of Delderfield’s other novels – probably beginning with the one I already have on my shelf, Farewell the Tranquil Mind.

This is book 9/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Mata Hari by Michelle Moran

So far my feelings about Michelle Moran’s novels have been very mixed. Cleopatra’s Daughter was interesting, but felt too light and insubstantial, The Second Empress was much better, but I had one or two problems again with Rebel Queen. I had hoped Mata Hari (also published as Mata Hari’s Last Dance) would be another good one, but unfortunately it turned out to be my least favourite of the four that I’ve read.

Before I read this book, all I knew about Mata Hari was that she was an exotic dancer who was accused of spying during the First World War. I felt sure that she must have been a fascinating woman and I was looking forward to learning more about her. And I did learn a lot from this novel. Mata Hari narrates her story (fictional, but based on fact) in her own words and tells us all about her dancing career, her experiences of life in European cities such as Paris and Berlin, and her many romantic relationships, including several with military personnel which led to her being accused of passing secrets to Germany.

However, I wanted to get to know the woman behind the newspaper headlines and the seductive costumes – Margaretha Zelle, or M’greet as she is called in the novel – and although she does confide in us now and then about her childhood in the Netherlands (she did not come from an Indian background, as she tried to claim), her time in Java during her unhappy marriage to Rudolf MacLeod and her heartbreak at the loss of her children, I never felt very close to Mata Hari and didn’t gain a very good understanding of the person she really was.

The one aspect of Mata Hari’s life that Moran does successfully capture is her loneliness; I didn’t like her and had very little sympathy for her as she seemed so immature and selfish, but I could see that she was not a happy person and that her character had been shaped by her earlier experiences. The descriptions of Mata Hari’s various dances are also well done, particularly one that she performs with a live snake while dressed as Cleopatra. The novel is strangely lacking in period detail, though, and apart from the obvious references to the war and to other famous people of the time – her rival dancer, Isadora Duncan, for example – I didn’t feel that there was much sense of time or place at all.

The book is also disappointingly short, with under 300 pages in the edition I read. If you just want a basic overview of Mata Hari’s life and career, it’s perfectly adequate, but for something deeper you will need to look elsewhere. The section of the novel covering her spying activities is very brief and feels almost like an afterthought, which is a shame as this is the part of the story which should have been the most interesting. Even on finishing the book, I’m not completely clear on what we are supposed to assume; was Mata Hari really a spy or was she just someone who had made some poor decisions and been carried along by events outside her control? To be honest, long before we reached this point I had lost interest anyway and had already decided that I would need to look for another book on Mata Hari one day. Has anyone read The Spy by Paulo Coelho?

The Last Son’s Secret by Rafel Nadal Farreras

This novel by Catalan author Rafel Nadal Farreras apparently enjoyed a lot of success when published in its original language in 2015 and is now available for the first time in an English translation by Mara Faye Lethem.

The story is set in the Puglia region of Italy where, in the small town of Bellorotondo, the names of twenty-one members of the Palmisano family are engraved on a memorial to the First World War. Vito Oronzo, the last Palmisano man to die in the war, leaves behind a pregnant wife, Donata. When the child – a boy whom she names Vitantonio – is born, Donata is so afraid that her son will succumb to the curse of the Palmisanos that she takes desperate measures to secure his safety.

The Last Son’s Secret follows little Vitantonio through his idyllic childhood in rural Italy, growing up alongside Giovanna Convertini, the daughter of his father’s best friend who was also killed on the same day in 1918.

They took dips in the stone laundry trough, caught crickets in the garden, ran through the fields as the farmers cleared the dead leaves from the olive trees, and they ate dinner together at the kitchen table. In the evenings everyone gathered on the threshing floor and sat in the cool air: the grown-ups sang and told stories and the children played hide-and-seek until they were so worn out they fell asleep on their aunt’s lap.

Elsewhere in Puglia, however, life is not so pleasant. A neighbour’s six-year-old son is sold into child labour, while in the nearby cave houses of Matera families live in extreme poverty. Further afield, Mussolini is rising to power and Europe is on the brink of war once more. Eventually, Vitantonio, Giovanna and their friends will be forced to take sides. Will the Palmisano curse strike again or has Donata done enough to protect her son from his father’s fate?

I enjoyed The Last Son’s Secret; despite it being set during the two world wars, it’s not as depressing as it might sound – the likeable main character and the messages of hope and optimism are enough to counteract the darker aspects of the plot. The depiction of life in Italy between the wars is beautiful and I could easily imagine I was there in Bellorotondo, harvesting olives, picking cherries and planting flowers in the garden of the Convertini palazzo. I particularly liked the descriptions of Matera, where Vitantonio hides out for a while at the beginning of the war.

The Second World War chapters are also interesting to read, and I couldn’t help thinking how rarely I have read anything that looks at the war from an Italian perspective. This is certainly the first time I have read a fictional portrayal of the chemical disaster caused by the release of mustard gas during the sinking of the American ship John Harvey in the port of Bari.

The Last Son’s Secret is a surprisingly quick read, but it did take me a few chapters to really get into the story. This is probably because it begins with a long chronicle of the deaths of the Palmisano men, which I expect was intended to be a quirky and unusual opening to the novel but didn’t quite work for me. Also, while Vitantonio’s story was moving at times, I don’t really think I would describe it as the sweeping, heartbreaking epic promised by the blurb. Maybe some of the emotion was lost in translation – although in general I did think the translation flowed well and I had no real complaints about it. If any other books by Rafel Nadal Farreras become available in English I would be happy to read them.

This is Book 3/20 for my 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.

The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

This wonderful story of a young woman with a passion for aviation is the first book I’ve read by Rebecca Mascull, but I enjoyed it so much I will certainly be going back to read her previous two novels. Set in the Lincolnshire town of Cleethorpes in the first two decades of the 20th century, The Wild Air is both fascinating and inspirational, with a heroine I loved and connected with immediately.

Her name is Cordelia Dobbs – Della for short – and her interest in flying begins at the age of fourteen when her Great Aunt Betty comes home from America, where she has lived for the last twenty years. Della is a quiet girl who often feels overshadowed by her more attractive and talented siblings, but things begin to change with Betty’s arrival. As the sister of a railway engineer, during her time in North Carolina Betty has been paying special attention to all the latest developments in engineering and flight and has even had the opportunity to see the planes produced by the famous Wright brothers.

Seeing that she has a kindred spirit in Della, Betty takes the girl under her wing (pun intended) and together they take part in kite-flying sessions on the beach while making plans to design their own flying machine one day. Despite the disapproval of her father, Della is determined to turn her hobby into a career and become an aviatrix – a female pilot. It isn’t easy – on approaching a flying instructor to ask for lessons, Della is told that ‘the air is not the place for a woman’ – but now that her mind is made up, she will stop at nothing to achieve her ambition.

I don’t personally share the characters’ love of aviation, but their enthusiasm – and the author’s – shines through on every page. Even though the descriptions of Della’s flights and the technical details of planes and flying didn’t always interest me, I could tell that they fascinated Della and that was all that mattered. I could also appreciate how much research Rebecca Mascull must have carried out to be able to write so convincingly about the subject. She brings each scene to life so well: visiting the Blackburn School of Flying on the beach at Filey, an air show Della attends with Auntie Betty – and her first flight as a passenger with the Belgian aviatrix Hélène Dutrieu, going through the full range of emotions from fear to wonder during this amazing experience. I know I would never have been brave enough to do what Della did; bearing in mind how new aeroplanes were at that time, how unreliable they could be, and that accidents – often fatal – did happen, I’m sure I would have been terrified to go up alone in one. We owe so much to these early pioneers of aviation who were prepared to take risks and try something new.

I wondered at first whether Della was a real person, but I quickly discovered that she wasn’t. However, I didn’t mind at all that I was reading about a fictional aviator rather than a real one; it allowed the author to take the story in different directions and develop personal storylines and relationships for Della without worrying about sticking to biographical facts. I loved the relationship that forms between Della and Auntie Betty as this quiet, reserved girl finds someone with whom she shares a bond and something she can put her heart and soul into. One of the most interesting relationships, though, is the one Della has with her father, Pop, a former actor who has been left angry and bitter after an injury brought his theatrical career to an end. Della feels that Pop has never shown her any love or encouragement and as the story progressed I kept hoping that the two of them would find a way to understand and accept each other.

In the second half of the book, World War I dominates as several of Della’s loved ones go off to fight and Della herself searches for ways in which she can play a part. Towards the end of the war, things take a dramatic turn and, without going into details and spoiling the story, this was the only part of the novel that I thought stretched the imagination a bit too far…until I decided that actually it was consistent with Della’s personality and just the sort of thing she would try to do. If I haven’t already made it clear, I loved this book – and now I really must read The Visitors and Song of the Sea Maid sooner rather than later!

This post is part of a blog tour for The Wild Air. For more reviews and features, please see the tour schedule below. And thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of the book for review via NetGalley.

The Echo of Twilight by Judith Kinghorn

the-echo-of-twilight It’s 1914 and Pearl Gibson, a young woman in her twenties, is about to take up a new position as lady’s maid. Her new employer, Ottoline Campbell, has estates in Northumberland and Scotland, which means Pearl will have to leave London and move north. She’s prepared to do this, however, because it’s not as if she has much to leave behind – her relationship with her boyfriend, Stanley, already seems to be fizzling out, and she has no other friends or family. Her mother killed herself just after Pearl’s birth and Pearl was raised by a great-aunt who is also now dead.

Spending the summer at Delnasay, the Campbells’ house in the Scottish Highlands, Pearl gradually settles into her new job and her new life. Although the other servants view her as proud and superior at first, she slowly wins them over, and at the same time she starts to form a close friendship with Ottoline. It seems that both Pearl and Ottoline are hiding secrets and as the bond between them strengthens, they begin to confide in each other more and more.

Meanwhile, the trouble which has been brewing in Europe throughout the year has escalated into war and the family return to England, hoping they will be safe at Birling Hall, their other estate in Warkworth, Northumberland. Ottoline’s two sons, Billy and Hugo, both enlist and are soon on their way to France, while Pearl also has someone to pray for: Ralph Stedman, an artist with whom she embarked on a new romance during her time in Scotland and who has also gone to war. All of this takes place just in the first half of the novel; there are plenty of other surprises and revelations to follow as Pearl and Ottoline learn more about each other – and as the war progresses, changing the lives of all of our characters forever.

Pearl, the novel’s narrator, is an interesting and complex character. I was intrigued by her habit of pretending to be other people, introducing herself to strangers as Tess Durbeyfield, Mrs Gaskell and even Ottoline Campbell herself…anybody but Pearl Gibson. I was happy, though, that by the end of the novel we’d had a chance to get to know the real Pearl. Ottoline was also a fascinating character, but I felt that she remained more of an enigma.

The Echo of Twilight is Judith Kinghorn’s fourth novel. I loved her first, The Last Summer, was slightly less impressed by the second, The Memory of Lost Senses, and haven’t yet read her third, The Snow Globe. This one sounded appealing to me as it is set during the same time period as The Last Summer – and although the stories are quite different, the two books do share some similar themes. The impact of war, not just on those who are fighting in it, but also on the people left behind, is an important part of both novels. We see how, with so many young men lost from the British workforce, women had to take on what would previously have been considered ‘jobs for men’, and how, once the war was over, the social structure had changed so much that the running of large estates like Delnasay and Birling tended not to be sustainable.

The Echo of Twilight is an easy read – the sort where the pages seem to fly by effortlessly – and a beautifully written one. Although I wasn’t entirely convinced by the romance at the heart of the novel and didn’t sense a lot of chemistry there, there were enough other aspects that I did like to make up for that. It’s not just a romance; it’s also a lovely, moving story about a young woman trying to find her place in the world.

Thanks to the publisher Canelo for providing a review copy via NetGalley.