This is an historical novel of the unexpected. Featuring two characters from different backgrounds who intersect on various levels, this book looks at differences and similarities between different time periods. It looks at impossible, even inhuman situations, and how people react to them. It also has moving moments of great tenderness, as a relationship emerges which defies logic. It is a powerful and intense novel, based on a great deal of human understanding and insight. There is a lot of research represented, but never overstated and beautifully handled. In a contemporary setting the real problems of mental health care is frighteningly portrayed, as a psychiatric patients are kept in awful conditions without much treatment. Meanwhile a soldier in the First World War is discovered and his situation is fully described, combining graphic details of life in the trenches with one man’s motives for fighting. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this original and unexpected book.
The book opens in Coldbrook Hall Military Hospital in England, August 1916. Robert wakes up is his room, unable to see, fighting pain when ever the light intrudes. Left alone, he stumbles around his room and falls, wedged between furniture.
In April 2017, a bereaved young medical student, Louise, toasts her grandmother with a mysterious drink found in a cupboard. Grieving for the person who brought her up, she becomes confused and slips down a cliff on the Sussex Downs. She is patched up in hospital and shipped off to a psychiatric hospital, which is chronically understaffed and badly organised. It is when she climbs out of the unit into a condemned part of the building that she discovers a single room. When she opens the door she encounters Robert, who is living in 1916, with his blindness. As she manages to escape from the minimal supervision in the hospital, she manages to visit several times and a relationship develops. As time seems to move faster in the earlier time period, they begin to explore the extensive grounds of the military hospital. Louise realises that the clothes she is wearing when she visits Robert belong to a Rose Ashby, someone who she is to discover more about in the book. Their mutual attraction forms the great hope of their difficult lives, even when changes take place.
This book combines a searing indictment of contemporary mental health institutions and the way that people are treated within the system, as Louise is condemned to spend time in an inadequate facility with little apparent cause. The detailed accounts of Robert’s progress in the War, on the battlefield, shows how difficult it was, and how misguided the fighting. He is also shown on leave, confronting the armchair generals who believe they know best about the situation from the safety of Britain. The subsequent developments in the novel explore various themes connected with the First World War to great effect. This is a novel which maintains dramatic tension throughout, gives lots to think and wonder about, and deals with very real issues for people. I recommend it to those interested in the historical details of trench warfare and the effects of battle, as well as fantasy and time slips as an effective and engaging read.