SYNOPSIS: It’s 1939 and Mary, a young socialite, is determined to shock her blueblood political family by volunteering for the war effort. She is assigned as a teacher to children who were evacuated from London and have been rejected by the countryside because they are infirm, mentally disabled, or—like Mary’s favorite student, Zachary—have colored skin.
Tom, an education administrator, is distraught when his best friend, Alastair, enlists. Alastair, an art restorer, has always seemed far removed from the violent life to which he has now condemned himself. But Tom finds distraction in Mary, first as her employer and then as their relationship quickly develops in the emotionally charged times. When Mary meets Alastair, the three are drawn into a tragic love triangle and—while war escalates and bombs begin falling around them—further into a new world unlike any they’ve ever known.
GENRE: Historical Fiction, War, WWII
RATING: ★★★☆☆ / 3 character driven stars.
REVIEW: There are a multitude of World War II novels out there, but where Chris Cleave's novel differs from many that I have read recently is that the overall tone creates an environment in which the characters aren't so much as participating or persevering in a war so much as that the war is happening to them. They are not in the war, it's more like the war is around them and closing in. The book is not a question of winning or losing a war and the grand battles that are fought. It's about how the war changes a single person, or in this case a few main characters.
Cleave's writing feels purely character driven. Switching between Mary, Tom, Alistair, and Zachary, it's the relationships between them and a few other secondary characters that create the entire novel. In the beginning they are idealistic, each with their own assumption as to how the war is going to go and their place in it. But as the book progresses, their views change as the war changes it for them. Cleave manages to give his characters proper progression, bit by realistic bit, so that the people that we start out with are definitely not the ones that we end with. And there is something great to be said about this. Any author who allows his characters to grow emotionally and physically in this way deserves to be commended.
Despite that though, I had a hard time connecting with the characters. There was a lot of humorous banter that was indeed amusing, but it felt like a way to alleviate the heaviness of the situation when alleviation wasn't necessary. I wanted it to be darker, I wanted to be dragged further into the situations and the story, I didn't want to be pulled from it too soon. The continuous witticisms created a bit of a bumpy reading experience.
If this book were a math equation all the numbers would add up to a perfect book, and yet the reality is harder to put into words. Because it's true that everything adds up but there is still something missing and I can't quite put my finger on it. I recognize that this is a horrible summation coming from a book reviewer, but by the end of the book I didn't have the emotional reaction that the book warranted and I don't fully know why. I just wasn't connected enough to the characters or the story.
The author's notes at the end, however, are incredibly interesting. His familial inspiration for this book was wonderful to read about and I encourage you to check it out if you pick up a copy of this book.