In the busy build up to Easter, when family and friends are perhaps looming, today’s book may be a challenging read. I would recommend you do find time to read and enjoy it, even if it is not always comforting story or series of tales.
I was so keen to read this book that I invested in the hardback (that, and I was in a favourite bookshop just before we moved house). I am glad I did, partly because the cover of the paperback is a sad let down in terms of suggesting that this novel is only a wartime romance. There is romance in this book, but of a very down to earth type, full of the chat and understanding that make the various relationships between the characters seem real.
There is a lot going on in this book. Mary is a young woman who wants to be involved in the war from the very start. She believes and hopes that she has signed up for secret war work, but it is not a spoiler to say that she ends up in a classroom, and it is through this situation that she meets Tom, who soon becomes fascinated with her and her unlikely set of attitudes. She also encounters some children who for various reasons are not evacuated, and she becomes involved with their lives. Tom’s friend Alistair joins up, and his experiences of life in the army are described with the detail that reveals that, as Cleave mentions in his afterword, he based that section on his grandfather’s accounts.
The beginning of the blitz as well as one character’s progress at the front gives an intensity to this book that made me put it down at the end of chapters to understand what had happened. Cleave plays tricks on the reader as bravery, even survival, is completely at risk. While there are four main characters, there are the friends, relatives and colleagues who maintain the dialogue, sometimes the plain speaking, which makes for a sometimes painful realism. Not that this is a sad or cheerless book; indeed, sometimes the conversations between the main characters are laugh out loud funny. Maybe it is gallows humour, but it is the sort of humour that does happen at times of stress or endurance; it’s the first time I have seen it not only written down but maintained between so many of the characters.
I enjoyed this book, even though I struggled with some of the tragedies. The style is so confident, whether dealing with disaster or hope. The theme of racial discrimination is tackled as a fact, rather than a point for preaching. There is sadness at the difficulties some people, some children face. It challenges the assumptions that all children were evacuated away from the bombing, which many contemporary sources argue simply did not happen in a significant number of cases. There are disturbing images here, but also the hope and survival of the human spirit. The hysterical reaction to the bombing of London feels slightly drunken, as characters come to terms with loss and change to familiar landscapes in all senses. It is that element which remains with me as I recognise the dawn realisation that so much has changed, but much is the same.
So I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the Second World War, as well as vivid, human writing about life changing experiences. It is an intense read rather than a fast one, not gripping in the sense of a thriller but in the sense of human curiosity. This is not an easy read, but such a richly written book that I would suggest you get your hands on a copy you can keep for some time and relish.