This is a totally involving historical novel which did leave me tearful, yet with hope. Iona Grey has created not only characters who have intense and realistic lives, but also a sense of a time, or times, that provide the reason for their reactions. Set in both 1925 when the emotions of a war past leads to an overwhelming sense of loss and the need to make the most of each moment, and 1936 when the old certainties have long gone, this is a powerful story. Women are daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, but are also searching for the right to be individuals and if necessary defy expectations set by families and friends. There is a sense of loss permeating through this book, but also a sense of the lengths people are willing to go to for the sake of those they love. A lonely little girl is missing her mother, and a scheme is evolved to comfort her and enable her to discover a very adult truth. A young woman seemingly leads a life of flippancy and frivolity which makes her a notorious society celebrity, but her sorrow at the loss of her brother and an unlikely meeting with a very different sort of man becomes a vivid reason for her actions. Details of living spaces, clothes, food and drink anchor this book in a real world, showing a depth of research in a subtle way. A country house is contrasted over the two periods of time; London is seen in several ways from positions of careless wealth, family expectations and artistic poverty. I was so glad to have the opportunity to read and review this emotional yet well controlled book.
The novel opens with a brief and tantalising glimpse of a couple spending a quiet dawn together before being parted, dated February 1926. The focus then moves on nearly ten years on to January 1936, and a small girl, Alice, staying in her grandparents’ faded and isolated country house. Her governess has her own agenda, most of the servants are uninterested in this silent girl, and her grandmother is strict, even harsh. Only Polly has a genuine interest in the little girl, and proposes to enable her to send and receive extra letters from her beloved mother on her trip to Burma with her cold and distant Papa. Her mother is obviously a devoted and spontaneous parent who writes exciting and loving letters about her travels, full of the details of colour, sounds and foods that contrast sharply with Alice’s current wintery experience. The narrative then shifts to a group of “Bright Young Things” in 1925, notably Selina, Theo and Flick, enjoying life in London as they scandalise the establishment. A chance encounter with a young artist gives Selina’s life a new direction, and as the two stories of Alice and Selina progress, the reader discovers much of the links between lives and loss.
This is a novel which uses a sense of place, photography and lyrical descriptions of idyllic times to ground what is a very human story. The losses of one war and the build up to another is an element, but also the impact of those losses on those left behind explain how some characters react to tragic circumstances. I found this book one I desperately wanted to keep reading for its skilful description of characters, yet also wanted to revel in the beautiful writing. A mature, well constructed and elegantly written book, I heartily recommend it as a moving book of a woman’s life and loves.
This book has just been published in paperback – it will be well worth getting old of a copy.