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.

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings – Tapestry of War and The Desert War

For Week 2 of Nonfiction November, the topic is as follows:

(Nov. 5 to 9, hosted by Sarah’s Bookshelves) – Fiction / Nonfiction Book Pairing – This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

I’ve recently read two books that fit this week’s topic perfectly…

Fiction: Tapestry of War by Jane MacKenzie

Tapestry of War follows the very different experiences of two young women during World War II. In Egypt, we meet Fran Trevillian, a journalist working for the Alexandria Journal, reporting on the issues that are important to the diverse communities that have made the city their home. As Rommel’s forces draw closer to Alexandria, Fran falls in love with Jim MacNeill, a Scottish radar specialist. Meanwhile, in Scotland, Jim’s sister Catriona has finished training to be a nurse and is hoping to use her new skills to provide therapy for injured soldiers who have been sent home from the war. On the Isle of Islay, where she lives with her father, however, nursing opportunities seem limited and Catriona longs to move away to somewhere where she feels her work can really make a difference.

Although there is occasionally some drama in the stories of our two main characters and their friends, this is a very character driven novel. Both women change and grow as people as a result of the work they carry out during the war and the new relationships they develop. I enjoyed each storyline equally, drawn more to Fran’s at the beginning because it was set closer to the action, but appreciating Catriona’s more and more as the novel progressed. I became completely invested in the lives of each woman, sharing in their happiness as each finds love when they least expect it and in their sadness as the tragedy of war strikes again and again.

Most of my previous World War II reading has concentrated on the war in Europe, so my knowledge of what was happening in North Africa is more limited. I found that I was learning a lot from Tapestry of War, but I knew I needed to read some non-fiction to fill in the gaps…

Nonfiction: The Desert War by James Holland

This little book is part of the Ladybird Expert series, aimed at adult readers but published in the same format that those of us who loved Ladybird books as children will remember. Written in a clear and concise style, the left hand pages contain the text while on the right there’s a map, a photograph or an illustration.

Beginning in 1940, when the Italians, under Mussolini, entered the Second World War, James Holland takes us in chronological order through each stage of the war in North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It’s all very factual and straight to the point, with none of the author’s own personality coming through, but in a book with only 50 pages (half of them pictures) and a lot of information to cover, that’s understandable. Battles and raids are described briefly, concentrating on the outcome and any notable tactics or weapons that were used.

The Desert War is a perfect introduction to the subject and can easily be read in less than an hour. If, when you’ve finished it, you want to explore things in more detail, some recommendations for further reading are given, although there are no references or sources provided. I didn’t mind this as all I wanted from this book was a chance to learn some basic facts and to get the timeline of events straight in my mind – it’s obviously not intended to be a comprehensive, in-depth read. Looking at the other titles in the Ladybird Experts series, I see there are several more by James Holland covering different aspects of the war, as well as books by other authors on topics as diverse as witchcraft, genetics and Beowulf.

Thanks to Allison & Busby for providing a review copy of Tapestry of War and to Penguin Random House for a review copy of The Desert War.

Do you like to read fiction and non-fiction on the same subject? Can you think of any pairs of books that go well together?

Dark Summer in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

This is the second in Allan Massie’s four-book crime series set in occupied France during the Second World War. My review is as spoiler-free as I could make it, so it should be safe to read on even if you’re new to the series, but I would definitely recommend beginning with the first book, Death in Bordeaux, as there are lots of recurring characters and some storylines which continue from book to book.

In Dark Summer in Bordeaux, we re-join Superintendent Jean Lannes of the Bordeaux Police as he is called out to deal with another crime – this time involving the murder of an elderly man, whose body has been found in a city park. As Lannes learns more about the man and how he died, some political implications begin to emerge, as well as some surprising links to the murders committed in the previous novel. Lannes comes under pressure from his superiors who want the investigations brought to a close as quickly as possible, but he is not ready to drop the case just yet – not until he finds out what is really going on here.

Investigating a murder is never going to be easy or pleasant at the best of times, but it is particularly challenging for Lannes because of the political situation in France, where the demands and concerns of the Vichy secret services, the German occupiers and the French Resistance all have to be taken into consideration. As a decent, principled person Lannes often finds himself torn between his conscience telling him to do what he knows is right and see justice done, and his common sense telling him to do as he is told and keep his family safe.

As if the stress of his job was not enough, Lannes is also worried about all three of his children, for different reasons. His eldest son, Dominique, is making plans to go and work for the Vichy regime, while Alain, whose views are rather different, wants to join Charles de Gaulle and the Free French. Meanwhile, his daughter, Clothilde, announces that she is in love with the young German officer who is stationed in their apartment block. Lannes is not very happy about any of this, but only because he is looking ahead to a time when (he hopes) the war will be over and a wrong decision taken now could have disastrous consequences. His wife, Marguerite, has her own opinions and this is causing tension in her marriage to Lannes.

As well as Lannes and his family, we also catch up with other characters from the previous book, including one of my favourite characters – Leon, the nephew of Lannes’ friend Miriam. Leon is in a particularly interesting – and dangerous – position in Vichy France, being both Jewish and gay, and this makes him a target of blackmailers and others who want to take advantage of him for their own ends. It seems that, in Bordeaux, the war is bringing out the best in some people and the worst in others. It’s a fascinating setting, even more so because I have read so little about life in France during the Occupation.

I haven’t said much about the mystery aspect of this novel, but that’s because I found it almost secondary to the setting and the characters. The murder of the man in the park is important and ties all the other threads of the story together, but I was much less interested in finding out who killed him than I was in reading about Leon’s ordeals or Alain’s support for the Resistance. I found this a more enjoyable book than the first one, probably because I already knew the characters and was invested in what happened to them. I’m looking forward to continuing with the third book, Cold Winter in Bordeaux.

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P. XIII challenge (category: mystery).

Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This, the second in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, continues the story begun in The Light Years, taking us through the early stages of the Second World War. It’s been almost exactly a year since I read the first book, but I found that I could still remember the characters and storylines and jump straight back into the story. If I’d needed a reminder, though, the book opens with a useful family tree, character list and summary of the previous novel.

Marking Time begins just as Britain declares war on Germany in September 1939 and ends just two years later, in 1941. The Cazalet family – who include ‘the Brig’ and his wife ‘the Duchy’; their daughter, Rachel; their three sons, Hugh, Edward and Rupert, with their wives and children; and an assortment of other relations, friends and servants – are gathered again at Home Place in the Sussex countryside and this is where most of them will be based during the two years the novel covers. As an upper middle class family, they are sheltered from some of the worst deprivations of the war, but eventually it does begin to affect each of their lives in all sorts of ways.

One of my criticisms of The Light Years was that the number of characters was overwhelming and the constant changes from one perspective to another made it difficult to focus. Marking Time has a slightly different format. There are still several chapters which deal with the whole family, spending a few pages with one family member, then a few pages with another, but there are also some longer sections which concentrate on one character at a time.

The characters who are given their own chapters are the three teenage girls – Louise, Polly and Clarissa (Clary) – who happen to be three of the characters I singled out as favourites in my review of The Light Years. I was delighted to have the opportunity to spend a more substantial period of time with each of the girls, getting to know them better. Louise, the eldest child of Edward and Villy, is an intriguing mixture of sophistication and innocence. In Marking Time, we see her leave home to become an actress, fall in love for the first time, and make an unwelcome discovery about another family member. Clary’s chapters are written partly in the form of diary entries and this gives her a particularly strong and distinctive voice. Clary receives some bad news quite early in the war – although we don’t yet know exactly how bad – but there are some positives to come out of this, such as an improvement in her relationship with her stepmother, Zoe. Meanwhile, Polly – Hugh and Sybil’s daughter – overhears a private conversation which throws her life into turmoil.

Despite all the problems various family members are experiencing, the novel isn’t entirely depressing; there are some funny scenes too, mainly involving the younger children, Neville and Lydia, and we see the beginnings of a touching romance between two of the Cazalet servants. Although the lifestyle of the Cazalet family is entirely different from my own – partly because of the time period in which they live, but also because of their class – I still feel that they are people I understand and care about. I enjoyed this book much more than the first and am pleased I still have another three Cazalet novels to read. The next one is Confusion and I’m looking forward to finding out how the family fare throughout the rest of the war.

This is book 14/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

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.

The Last Pier by Roma Tearne

This is the second novel I have read by Roma Tearne and very different from the first I read, The Swimmer, which was the story of a woman’s relationship with a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka. I had the impression that all of her books covered similar themes of immigration, asylum and conflict in Sri Lanka, so I was surprised when I picked up The Last Pier, one of her more recent novels from 2015, and found that it was set on a fruit farm in rural England just before the start of World War II.

It’s the summer of 1939 and Cecily Maudsley is thirteen years old – that difficult age, no longer a young child but not an adult yet either. Cecily watches enviously as Rose, her beautiful sixteen-year-old sister, becomes the centre of attention that summer and catches the eye of every man in Suffolk, it seems. But Rose’s life is not as perfect as it appears; we learn in the very first chapter that a tragedy is going to take place – and that Cecily will be blamed for it.

The Last Pier is a novel in which secrets, revelations and surprises play an important part, so I will have to be careful not to say too much. Some of the secrets take a long time to be revealed; in fact, Cecily herself only uncovers the whole truth twenty-nine years later when she returns to England after a long absence. Part of the novel is written from the perspective of the young Cecily, giving an account of the events of 1939 as they happen, and part from the perspective of the older Cecily, remembering moments from the past. The way Roma Tearne handles the passing of time is very effective, moving between past and present to unveil the clues that we must put together before the full picture can be seen – but it also means the story feels very fragmented, which can be confusing at times.

There’s plenty of suspense as we wait to find out exactly what happens to Rose and who is responsible for it, and there is a feeling of danger and foreboding which hangs over the whole novel. At the same time, the outbreak of war is approaching, bringing with it the sense that very soon the lives of all of the Maudsleys will be changed forever. The novel covers an aspect of the Second World War which I haven’t read about very often – the fate of Italian people who were living in Britain at the beginning of the war – and this is explored through the story of the Molinello family who had arrived in Suffolk from Tuscany more than a decade earlier and opened an ice cream parlour not far from the Maudsleys’ farm. The two families have become very close over the years and, when Italy’s role in the war causes the Molinellos to be regarded with suspicion, the Maudsleys find that their fortunes have become entwined with their Italian friends’.

Cecily is particularly interested in what happens to the Molinello family because she is in love with Carlo, one of the Molinello sons. However, it seems to her that Carlo, like everyone else, only has eyes for Rose. As Cecily’s jealousy increases, she begins to watch Rose’s movements, following her when she can and eavesdropping on conversations. She also becomes curious about Robert Wilson, a stranger who claims to have been sent to Suffolk on government business, to carry out a survey of the farmland in preparation for the war. By watching and listening, Cecily picks up lots of little pieces of information about Rose, about Mr Wilson and about everyone else on the farm, but she lacks the maturity and experience to be able to understand the implications of what she has discovered.

Roma Tearne writes so well from the point of view of a teenage girl. I could really feel Cecily’s confusion as she tries to make sense of the things she has learned, her frustration at not quite being able to grasp what is going on, and her envy towards her sister, who appears to have everything Cecily wants and doesn’t have. I loved this beautifully written novel and I’m pleased that I’ve been reminded of Roma Tearne’s books, seven years after reading The Swimmer. I’m looking forward to reading some of her others.