The Tuscan Contessa by Dinah Jefferies

This is the first of Dinah Jefferies’ novels not to be set in Asia. After being whisked off by her previous six books to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, French Indochina and other fascinating settings, it was a surprise to find that her latest one takes place in Italy. I do love reading about Italy, though, and this setting – Rome and Tuscany during World War II – was just as interesting as the others.

The Contessa of the title is Sofia de’ Corsi, who lives with her husband Lorenzo in their Tuscan villa in the Val d’Orcia. Lorenzo works for the Ministry of Agriculture but Sofia knows very little about what his work actually involves, other than that it takes him away from home for long periods of time. The war is in its final years – the story begins in November 1943 – yet life in Italy is becoming more dangerous and more complicated than ever. Much of the country is still under German martial law and although the Allies are advancing and driving the German army back, their progress is very slow. Not only do Italians have the Nazis to worry about, however, but they are also fighting each other, with anti-Fascist partisans locked in civil war with supporters of Mussolini and his Fascist forces.

When James, a British radio engineer, is found wounded near Sofia’s home she offers to give him shelter, but knowing that Lorenzo would be worried for her safety, she decides to keep his presence a secret from her husband. Meanwhile, Maxine, an Italian-American spy, has arrived from Rome to stay with Sofia, having been given the job of gathering information about the Germans to pass on to the resistance and the Allies. But with the Nazi officers stationed in the village beginning to grow suspicious about Sofia’s household, the two women and their loved ones could be in danger.

I have to confess that before I read The Tuscan Contessa I knew very little about Italy during the war, so I was pleased to find that a timeline is included at the front of the book, outlining the key events from the Italian perspective. This helped me to understand what had been happening in the months prior to the beginning of the novel and how there were so many different groups all working with or against each other: the German occupiers, Mussolini’s Blackshirts, the Partisans and communists, Allied soldiers and SOE spies. It’s not surprising that Sofia and her friends are never quite sure who can and cannot be trusted and who might be about to betray them. One thing I really liked about the novel is the way Jefferies shows that there are good and bad people on all sides of any conflict and that both friends and enemies can be found where they are least expected.

Although there are plenty of male characters, all with significant roles to play in the novel, the focus is mainly on the women and the decisions they have to make to keep themselves and their families safe. I liked Sofia but the other characters felt less well drawn and I even found myself confusing some of them with each other. I didn’t feel that I ever truly got to know and understand Maxine, which was a shame because her storyline should have been the most exciting and compelling, as her work took her into some very dangerous situations. It seemed that the characters sometimes took second place to the history unfolding around them, which made the story less emotionally gripping than it could have been.

This is not one of my favourite Dinah Jefferies novels, but I’m still glad I read it even if just for the knowledge I’ve gained of 1940s Italy!

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

V2 by Robert Harris

Robert Harris is one of my favourite authors, but I was slightly disappointed by last year’s The Second Sleep. The setting was atmospheric and the concept was fascinating but, like a lot of people, I thought the ending was abrupt and confusing. I’m pleased to say that I found his latest book, V2, much more enjoyable and the perfect distraction from the depressing national and world news and from the pressures of returning to work earlier this month after a long period on furlough.

V2 is set during World War II and follows the stories of two people on different sides of the conflict. Dr Rudi Graf is a German engineer who has played an important part in the development of the V2 rocket. Although his intention was originally to build rockets that could fly to the moon, the technology is now being used by Nazi Germany to carry out attacks on Allied cities, something Graf isn’t entirely comfortable with.

In London, meanwhile, Kay Caton-Walsh, a young officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, narrowly avoids being killed in one of these attacks when a V2 hits the building in which she is staying with her married lover. With her affair in danger of being exposed, Kay jumps at the opportunity to go to Belgium with a group of other WAAF officers on a mission to locate the V2 launch site and prevent the weapons from being used in any more strikes.

The whole novel takes place during just five days in November 1944, with Graf’s narrative alternating with Kay’s until eventually their stories begin to come together. I found both of them equally interesting to read about, but I was particularly impressed with the way Harris makes Graf such a sympathetic character, despite the fact that he is at least partly responsible for the death and destruction caused by the V2. His gradual disillusionment with his work is plain to see and he ends up being confronted with some moral dilemmas as a result. Kay’s work is rather different – she is trying to save lives rather than destroy them – but she also finds herself facing some difficult decisions when she begins to question who can and cannot be trusted.

The thriller element of the novel is very well done, with the tension rising chapter by chapter as each rocket is launched and Kay and her fellow WAAF officers race against the clock to stop them. The women are equipped with logarithm tables, slide rules and an ability to make quick and accurate calculations, but still feel under an immense amount of pressure, knowing that lives depend on their mathematical skills. The story does get quite technical at times, but don’t worry if you’re not a scientist or mathematician – the plot is easy enough to follow even if you don’t fully understand every aspect of Kay’s or Graf’s work.

The novel is equally successful as a portrayal of life in various parts of wartime Europe, from Mechelen in Belgium where Kay is stationed, newly liberated from the Germans but still feeling the effects, to the forests of the Occupied Netherlands where Graf and his team are launching the V2 rockets. Although the V2 is an imprecise and expensive weapon and ultimately seen as a waste of German resources, it is still capable of causing enormous destruction and loss of life. It is in the sections of the book set in London that we see the evidence of this, such as when 168 people are killed in one strike on a branch of Woolworths, which is packed with shoppers who have heard that a new consignment of saucepans has just been delivered.

V2 has not become an absolute favourite Harris novel – I don’t think it really compares with An Officer and a Spy or the Cicero trilogy – but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I have had Munich, an earlier book by Harris, on my TBR for a few years, so I’m hoping to find time to read that one soon too.

Thanks to Random House UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Historical Musings #62: World War II

Welcome to my (almost) monthly post on all things historical fiction.

This month, I have taken inspiration from one of my current reads, V2 by Robert Harris. I won’t say too much about that book here, as I will be reviewing it later in the week, but it’s set during the Second World War and follows the stories of a German engineer launching V2 rockets at London and a British WAAF officer on a mission to stop him. Unless something happens in the final few chapters to change my opinion entirely, it’s going to be a very positive review. I’m finding it fascinating as it looks at several aspects of the war I haven’t read about before – and that has made me think about some of the other novels I’ve read set during the war and the many different ways in which authors decide to approach the subject and the different things on which they choose to focus.

For those of us interested in reading about the roles of women in the war, for example, Kay in The Night Watch by Sarah Waters drives an ambulance, Constance in Lucinda Riley’s The Light Behind the Window is an SOE spy working in Occupied France, and in Carolyn Kirby’s When We Fall, Vee flies planes for the Air Transport Auxiliary and Ewa carries out secret missions for the Polish Resistance. On a more light-hearted note, Emmy in Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce answers letters for the problem page in a women’s weekly magazine!

Some books concentrate on one single event or episode, such as The Report by Jessica Francis Kane, about the bombing of the Bethnal Green tube station, or The Conductor by Sarah Quigley and The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons (read before I started blogging), about the Siege of Leningrad, while others, like The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, which follows the story of three Hungarian Jewish brothers, cover the whole span of the war.

Although most of the books I’ve read have been concerned mainly with the war in Europe, I have also read some set in America (The Postmistress by Sarah Blake and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford) and North Africa (Jasmine Nights by Julia Gregson and Tapestry of War by Jane MacKenzie).

The Holocaust and the challenges faced by Jews during the war tend to feature strongly in wartime fiction. Far to Go by Alison Pick looks at the role of the Kindertransport and Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman focuses on the Hungarian Gold Train. There’s also Jakob’s Colours by Lindsay Hawdon, which is not about the Jewish Holocaust but the Gypsy Holocaust, which made an interesting change. And Japanese internment camps feature in Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover and Ghostwritten by Isabel Wolff.

There are plenty of historical mysteries which have the war as a setting too: Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler, the first book in the Bryant and May series, deals with a murder in a London theatre during the Blitz, and Death in Bordeaux by Allan Massie is the first in a quartet of mystery novels set in Occupied France.

The books I have mentioned here are all historical fiction, published many years after the war ended. Of course, there are also lots of wonderful contemporary novels written during or just after the war, but that would be a topic for another post, I think!

Have you read any of the books above or would you be interested in reading them? Are there any others you would recommend? Which aspects of the war do you find most interesting to read about?

When We Fall by Carolyn Kirby

Carolyn Kirby’s new novel, set during World War II, was published in May to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VE day; unfortunately, I was in the middle of a lockdown-induced reading slump at that time, but I added the book to my 20 Books of Summer list to ensure that I would still read it sooner rather than later.

When We Fall, set in 1943, follows the stories of two women leading very different lives but both playing their part in the war effort. First, we are introduced to Valerie – Vee – Katchatourian, a British pilot whose job is to fly planes between airfields for the Air Transport Auxiliary. Forced to make an emergency landing due to fog one day, Vee encounters a Polish airman, Flight Sergeant Stefan Bergel of 302 Squadron. It’s only a brief meeting, but Stefan makes a big impression on Vee and she finds that she is unable to forget about him.

Meanwhile, in the city of Poznań in occupied Poland, Ewa Hartman is helping her father to run his guest house. At the same time as offering hospitality to German officers, Ewa is carrying out undercover work for the AK (the Polish resistance) – a dangerous thing to do, which becomes even more dangerous when she begins to attract the attention of a high-ranking German guest, SS-Obersturmführer Heinrich Beck. Ewa becomes close to Beck, but in her heart she remains loyal to her former lover, Stefan Bergel, whom she has not seen since he became a prisoner of the Soviet army a few years earlier.

Stefan provides the link between Ewa and Vee, but who is he really and where do his true allegiances lie? He is a complex and enigmatic character whose motives and loyalties are never clear, even to the reader who sees both sides of the story, unlike Ewa and Vee who see only their own. This, along with Ewa’s support for the resistance and the dangers of Vee’s work as a pilot, keeps the novel filled with tension and suspense until the end as there is no guarantee that any or all of our characters are going to survive the war.

The novel switches between the two storylines, although Vee’s almost disappears for a while in the middle of the book while most of the action is taking place in Poland. I liked both characters and both settings, but Ewa’s story was the most compelling, I thought. In all of my reading about the war, I don’t seem to have come across many books that describe life in occupied Poland, so I found it very interesting to read about the challenges Ewa faced on a daily basis. With the Nazi occupiers in the process of renaming streets and towns to make them sound more ‘German’ – Poznan becomes Posen, for example – Ewa must learn to respond to the German form of her own name (Eva), to avoid lapsing into her native language, and to come to terms with the local synagogue being converted into a swimming pool.

Names are also important for Vee, who was born in England but whose Armenian surname makes her the subject of prejudice and suspicion, as well as the prejudice she already experiences as a female aviator – even though the ATA was notable for paying women the same as men, Vee senses that she is not always considered an equal. Although I’m not really interested in aviation, Vee’s enthusiasm for her work as a pilot and for the different types of planes she is asked to fly comes across strongly.

Finally, I should mention the Katyn Massacre, a wartime atrocity which marked its 80th anniversary this year and casts its shadow over the lives of the characters in this book. I won’t say too much about it but will leave you to find out how it affects Stefan, Ewa and Vee if you decide to read When We Fall – which I do recommend, as it’s such an interesting and moving novel, very different from Carolyn Kirby’s previous book, The Conviction of Cora Burns, which I also enjoyed!

Thanks to No Exit Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 4/20 of my 20 Books of Summer. I am actually doing better with this than it seems – I have also read another four books from the list and just need to finish writing my reviews!

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

With a creepy country house setting and hints of ghosts, madness and family secrets, The Animals at Lockwood Manor has the sort of plot I would associate more with the Victorian period – and there are certainly some allusions to books like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Woman in White here – but the story is actually set during World War II, which makes an interesting change.

Our narrator, thirty-year-old Hetty Cartwright, works as a curator at a natural history museum in London. With the outbreak of war, a decision is made to remove the museum’s exhibits from the city and transport them to the safety of the countryside. Hetty is given the task of evacuating a collection of stuffed mammals to Lockwood Manor and staying there to take care of them for the duration of the war. As a single woman with no close family or friends, Hetty has devoted her life to her work and is looking forward to being director of her own little museum at Lockwood Manor – it’s a chance to prove herself in a male-dominated field and show that she is the equal of any man.

Once she arrives at the Manor and gets the animals arranged in the rooms, however, she begins to worry that she has taken on more than she can handle. Although Lord Lockwood has agreed to house the collection under his roof, he makes it clear that he is not happy with Hetty’s presence and believes women should be seen and not heard. As if his bullying isn’t enough, Hetty is disconcerted to find that some of the animals seem to be moving from room to room during the night, while others disappear entirely. Afraid and alone, Hetty turns to the only person in the household who offers any friendship and support: Lucy, Lord Lockwood’s daughter. But Lucy, who is haunted by strange dreams and tales of a ghostly woman dressed in white, has enough problems of her own!

This is Jane Healey’s first novel (she is not to be confused with the American author of the same name) and I found a lot to enjoy. First, there’s the atmosphere; the story is set almost entirely within the confines of Lockwood Manor, with a growing sense of mystery and tension as Hetty tells herself that there must be a logical explanation for what is happening to the animals but can’t quite shake off the feeling that they are somehow moving around by themselves. Then there are the social history aspects of the story, particularly the insights into how the role of women changed during the war; for example, we are told that Hetty would never have been promoted to keeper of the mammal collection if so many of the male museum workers hadn’t enlisted with the army, which is why she is so determined to make the most of the opportunity she has been given.

But I had one or two problems with the book too. I thought the pace felt uneven; very slow at the beginning and for much of the first half, with most of the action packed into the last few chapters. And if you took away the animals and found a different reason for Hetty’s arrival at Lockwood Manor, the story would be very similar to any number of other recent historical novels inspired by those same Victorian novels I mentioned in my opening paragraph above. Even the romance which develops in the middle of the novel was predictable. I suppose it was too much to be hoped for that Hetty could have been single just because she wanted to be single!

Overall, though, there was more to like than to dislike and I would be happy to read more books by Jane Healey in the future.

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

After the Party by Cressida Connolly

When I saw the list of titles shortlisted for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, After the Party was not one that particularly appealed to me but I have set myself a challenge of reading all of the shortlisted books since the prize began in 2010, so as my library conveniently had a copy available I brought it home and gave it a try.

The story is divided between two time periods. In 1938 we meet Phyllis Forrester, who has just returned to England with her husband and children after a long absence abroad. The narrative takes us through the events of that year and the wartime years which follow. There are also some sections set in 1979 with Phyllis looking back on that earlier time and on the choices and mistakes which led to her imprisonment. Yes, we know from the beginning that she has been to prison – but we don’t know exactly how or why that happened because the reasons are deliberately kept quite vague throughout most of the novel.

The 1930s storyline follows Phyllis as, back in England for the first time in three years, she occupies herself by helping her sister, Nina, to run a summer camp for young people. The camp is part of a new political movement which Nina and her husband are very enthusiastic about and they are hoping that the charismatic man they call ‘The Leader’ will visit at some point that summer. Unless I wasn’t paying attention, the name of this political group and its leader are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the book – certainly not until near the end, anyway – but with a little bit of knowledge of the period it’s easy enough to guess who they are.

If you believe that Phyllis is being honest with the reader, it seems that she has little idea of the true nature of the group or the values it represents. There’s a sense that her involvement has happened mainly because she has been at a loose end and looking for something useful to do to fill her days, and because she likes the idea of ‘belonging’ somewhere. For a while it all seems quite innocent; the main aims of the organisation appear to be to promote peace and avoid another war and it’s quite understandable that many people at the time would have supported those aims, with the horrors of the recent Great War fresh in their minds. Gradually, though, we start to see some uglier ideas being expressed and we can only assume that Phyllis must be aware of these views and agrees with them or at least can see nothing wrong with them. I thought it was quite an effective way of showing how people can become slowly indoctrinated into dangerous ways of thinking, something which is still as relevant today as it was in 1938.

I’m not sure how much sympathy we were intended to have for Phyllis but, although the circumstances of her arrest and the descriptions of her time imprisoned in Holloway are certainly horrible, I struggled to warm to her at any point, and I didn’t like any of the other people in her family and social circle either. They were the sort of people that, if I knew them in real life, I wouldn’t really want anything to do with; people who move in a world of snobbery and gossip, thinking they are better than everyone else. That was maybe the point – that the superiority and sense of status that these characters feel is partly why they are so open to the views of The Leader – but I didn’t particularly enjoy reading about them and their lives. I also felt that the incident at the party which is made to sound so dramatic in the novel’s blurb – the incident where Phyllis ‘lets down her guard for a single moment, with devastating consequences’ – was not as significant as it sounded and after reading so many pages waiting for that moment to come, it was an anti-climax when it did.

For the reasons above, this is not my favourite of the books I’ve read so far from this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist but I can see why it has been nominated as it’s a much more interesting and layered novel than I had initially thought it would be and one that left me with a lot to think about after reaching the end.

The Trap by Dan Billany

I knew nothing about Dan Billany until I decided to read The Trap, published posthumously in 1950, but his life story sounds dramatic enough to be the plot of a novel in its own right. As a Lieutenant in the British Army during World War II, he was captured in North Africa and transported to a camp in Italy. He wrote The Trap during his internment and, when he made his escape, left his manuscripts with an Italian farmer, who sent them to Billany’s family after the war ended. Billany himself never returned home and is thought to have died in 1943.

The Trap, I think, must be at least partly autobiographical, as its protagonist, Michael Carr, is also a young army officer sent to North Africa in the early years of the war. The first half of the novel, though, describes the quiet life Michael leads in Cornwall before war breaks out and his relationship with his girlfriend, Elizabeth Pascoe. Michael takes his time to tell this part of the story, in a style which is slow and rambling – quite ‘stream of consciousness’ at times – but I liked it. The writing is beautiful, painting a picture of a young working-class couple’s life in the 1930s, as well as delving into Elizabeth’s family background with descriptions of her parents’ marriage and the house in which she and her brother grew up.

I really enjoyed the domestic section of the novel, although it wasn’t what I had expected at all. I had been expecting a war story…which it is, but not until you’re halfway through the book. At this point, after some training at a camp in the English countryside, Michael is sent to fight in the deserts surrounding Tobruk and suddenly his life with Elizabeth seems very far away. As a young officer, Michael has to learn how to lead men and how to care for those under his command. The novel explores some of the problems he experiences with his men, as well as the challenging conditions they face in the desert before they even encounter the enemy. Knowing that Billany had lived through all of this himself, I have no doubt that his descriptions were authentic.

Looking at other reviews of this book, I think most people read it primarily for the story that is told in the second half and were disappointed with the time devoted to Elizabeth and her family. For me, it was the opposite: I preferred the first half set in Cornwall and started to lost interest once Michael arrived in North Africa and the book became more concerned with military tactics and army life. It felt almost like two separate novels in the same book – the two halves have a different tone, a different pace and a different style.

I found The Trap too uneven to be truly satisfying, but still worth reading, as much for its place in history as for its story.