At first glance this could be a novel of the First World War, and in a way it is, though it is mainly set in 1920. Rather than the anger or despair of the actual battlefields, or even harrowing details of soldiers’ experiences, this is a book of the aftermath, of those who are trying to capture or recapture their lives. Featuring two young men who have shared fighting life, and have been left with different dreams and problems, and two young women who seem to be heading for unmarried lives, this is an important and revealing novel. The style is meticulous, divided into carefully dated sections which focus on a particular event or reaction sometimes from two different points of view on the same day. While each character is described from outside, the author has been sufficiently skilled that the reader understands what they are feeling at any one time. The supporting cast includes a heart broken couple whose son did not return, a small boy who is going to frame the action, his mother and a kindly but determined clergyman. Strong women, challenging men and the way people perceive events all contribute to a tale in which the stories of people are so carefully realised, this seems like a slice of real life. The research is so successful that a real feeling of the period emerges as the songs, the fashions and even the cigarettes convince the reader that this is an impressive picture of immediate postwar life. I was so pleased to be given the opportunity to read and review a copy of this book.
The novel opens with a young man, Patrick, meeting two older ladies in London. It is November 1940, as the Blitz of the Second World War is beginning to affect daily life, and the women, Evelyn and Catherine are almost revelling in their adventure, and thrilled to see Patrick, a young man who they have obviously been very fond of for years. They appear to own their own hotels and tea shops, and be very much together “the same height”, wearing the same colour and “They were often taken for sisters”. Patrick narrates their meeting, reveals that he had been on a ship rescuing soldiers at Dunkirk, drops in references to Edward, and later discusses with the women William, Georgette and Isabella. These are merely names at this stage, but the reader learns that these are people of significance; how much will emerge later in the book. On the brink of another conflict shadows of the past intrude, these people have left their marks, and just how close these two world changing wars were together.
The main bulk of the novel is the story of Edward, mysterious musician, who was seen as the “Lucky Lieutenant” during the hardest of battles. His undoubted talent has brought him to Margate to play the piano at the Winter Gardens, a prestigious venue for classical music concerts. He has travelled with William, who is a chancer, his manager, and operates by a dubious moral code. As they wade into a violent dispute between a tobacconist and a disabled war veteran, it almost descends into farce with prosthetic limbs being used as weapons. It emerges that Edward is memorable for his facial covering, a metal plate which covers one side of his face including an eye. This mask is a significant theme, as they meet Evelyn who tries to be sympathetic but not patronising. A vicar’s daughter from London, she is in Margate to help a friend of her father’s, Alastair, a painter who owns a tea shop with his wife, Alice. Alice is pregnant, and deeply saddened by the loss of their son Curtis in the War. Catherine appears as a staunch friend to all, brought up by Beatrice, a strong woman who values her independence.
As the narrative progresses during 1920, we see the friends coping with challenges and changes, as death, birth, relationships, music and painting all contribute to a rich and detailed story. This is an intensely detailed book, hardly fast moving but overwhelmingly powerful in its careful description of life. I appreciated the reality of the characters, the background of grief and loss, and yet the satisfaction and humour of real life. This is a saga, a huge read, and I recommend it as a subtle picture of the immediate aftermath of war, and what will contribute to the almost temporary peace before the plunge into the Second World War. It is an undertaking of love, with impeccable research and genuine feeling.