Historical Musings #55: Lest we forget

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. As tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday, I thought it would be appropriate to devote this month’s post to historical novels which explore the impact and legacy of the First World War. I’ve always found this an interesting and moving period to read about and have come across books which cover almost every aspect of the war you can think of.

I’ve read books about wartime nurses (The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally and The Poppy Field by Deborah Carr), the horrors of life in the trenches (The Lie by Helen Dunmore) and men left suffering from shell shock (Dead Man’s Embers by Mari Strachan), what it means to be a conscientious objector (The Absolutist by John Boyne and If You Go Away by Adele Parks), the class and social changes that came about because of the war (The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn and The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson), and even the bravery of the horses that served in the war (War Horse by Michael Morpurgo).

I’ve also discovered family sagas which are set at least partly during the war (Post of Honour by RF Delderfield and The Daughter of Hardie by Anne Melville), historical mysteries set during or just after the war (The Return of Captain John Emmett and The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller) and fictional accounts of real people and their wartime experiences (Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud and Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore).

A good range of books there, I think, and although I can’t say that I loved all of them, I do think they all have something to offer and provide some insights into different aspects of the war. One thing I can say for certain is that reading about the war has helped me to appreciate the courage and resilience faced by both those on the front line and those left behind at home.

Now it’s your turn. Which books set during World War I would you recommend?

The Daughter of Hardie by Anne Melville

The Daughter of Hardie, originally published in 1988 as Grace Hardie, is the second in Anne Melville’s trilogy of novels following the story of a family of English wine merchants throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I think this book does stand alone quite well as it concentrates mainly on the younger generation of the Hardie family, but I would still recommend starting with the first one, The House of Hardie, if you can.

This second novel opens in 1898 with Grace Hardie growing up at Greystones, the family estate in the countryside near Oxford, where they have their wine shop. As the only girl in a family of boys and considered an invalid due to her severe asthma attacks, Grace is struggling to find her place in the world but she finds happiness in exploring the grounds of Greystones and playing with her beloved cat, Pepper. Then, one day, a tragic accident destroys Grace’s happiness and things are never quite the same again. Meanwhile, 1914 is approaching and with it the beginning of the First World War. With five brothers, four of whom are old enough to fight, there could be more tragedy ahead for Grace and her family…

I enjoyed the first Hardie novel, but I thought this one was even better. I wasn’t sure about it at first – I found the scenes describing the accident I alluded to earlier quite harrowing and I almost stopped reading at that point, but I’m pleased I didn’t because as the consequences of that incident and its impact on Grace and her brothers became clearer I started to understand why it was depicted in that way. By the time war broke out halfway through the novel I had been fully drawn into the story and was genuinely worried for the characters as they either went off to fight or were left behind to wait for news of their loved ones.

Anne Melville manages to cover almost every aspect of the war you could think of – men sent home from the front wounded, men left suffering from shellshock, gas attacks and zeppelin raids, conscription and desertion, women stepping into roles vacated by men, and the difficulties of keeping a large estate running during and after the war. This could easily have felt overwhelming, but it doesn’t…all of these storylines arise naturally from the stories of the various characters and the types of people they are.

But this is not just a book about war. One of the main themes of the first novel, women’s education, was at the forefront of this one too. Midge Hardie, my favourite of the ‘first generation’ characters, is now a school headmistress – a job she loves, even though she had been forced to make an unfair choice between marriage and a teaching career, as married headmistresses are considered ‘unacceptable’. Grace herself is not as certain as Midge about what she wants to do and it was interesting to follow her internal struggles over whether to marry and have children or to pursue a more independent way of life.

There was so much to enjoy in this book that I really don’t think the two big plot twists that come towards the end of the book were at all necessary. One in particular felt unbelievable and just a way of trying to tie up loose ends that didn’t need to be tied. That was a shame because otherwise I had loved the book, after that uncertain start. Despite those reservations, though, I will definitely be reading the final part of the trilogy, The Hardie Inheritance, and will look forward to finding out how the story ends.

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

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.

~

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.