The Secret Guests by B.W. Black
A book of war time secrets, long memories and much more, this is a fast moving novel about a unique though imaginary situation. It is based on the idea that the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, were in real danger during the London Blitz of 1940, and it was decided to send them to a safer place. For reasons which are not made clear, it is decided that they should be sent to the rundown house of a poor duke in Ireland, a neutral country in the war. Not being heavily guarded, the girls’ safety is largely dependent on maintaining the secret of their presence. There is the obvious danger of invasion by German forces as far as Britain, a short distance away across the sea. Also there is the perennial problem of Irish politics and long memories of past injustices and betrayals; the local people and even the small squad of troops are more sunk in their past disputes than is realised. The girls themselves are portrayed as a version of how they are perceived to be as adults, as one of the interesting things about this book is that the reader knows the girls survive. This is a well written book which introduces a lot of ideas and characters in a relatively short space. It is an unusual and effective mystery thriller.
The book begins with Margaret watching the view from a Buckingham Palace window at the age of ten. Elizabeth collects her, and they go to their parents before setting off for their exile which is meant to keep them safe. A young woman, Celia Nashe, is known to be tough and resourceful, and having been accepted into MI5, looks to be sent on a mission with danger and purpose. Detective Garda Strafford, who has had a difficult past, is apprised of his mission by the Irish minister of external affairs. Both are to spend an indefinite length of time guarding the two girls in a house that has seen better times. Isolated and without a clear idea of what their task entails, both find the house and servants frustrating and the girls icily well mannered. Strafford retreats into a pattern of moody consideration of his lot; as the son of Anglo Irish landowners he has some idea of the style of life the duke is trying to maintain. Nashe is frustrated that her brave mission is so far confined to being a sort of nanny, sort of guard against the unknown. Although issued with a gun that she is trained to use, the very domestic nature of the setting gives her no clue as to what she is actually supposed to do. The two girls meanwhile are different in their reaction to their uncomfortable confinement, their questionable aliases and seclusion. Elizabeth is strict in her deportment and only reveals her true love for horse riding. Margaret however is overwhelmed with various emotions and longs for a different sort of freedom.
I found this an oddly paced book with emphasis on some characters and their motives, both within the house and in the area outside, which distracted from the central idea of the girls whose safety is paramount. Having said that, the story does place the characters in their setting, with all their weaknesses combining and leading to the rather brilliant ending. This is quite a different book in that it does not sit comfortably into crime or straight historical fiction; it is a sort of historical thriller which combines so very good characterisation with a clever idea. A concise and fascinating read, it has many points to recommend it.
This is a different book from those I have been reviewing recently. The author is otherwise known as Benjamin Black, who writes the Quirke crime novels, and is in turn a pen name of John Banville, who won the Booker prize in 2005. So this is an example of an author who uses different names for different genres, and this is the first book I have read in any of them. (though typically I may well have some of his other books on the shelves. I must have a look!
On a more personal note, I am glad to say that my Daughter is getting better, though rather stiff and bruised. Thank you for your good wishes for her recovery.