This is one of those books with a great premise let down by less than perfect execution. It’s ambitious – a dual-timeline story, with the grandmother in the second world war and her granddaughter in the present day. Each woman has her own story, but needless to say they have echoes of each other and eventually overlap.
The grandmother’s story is by far the more interesting to me. Dorothy is married to Albert, a working class man she married as much to escape her mother as for any other reason. Mother then casts her off for marrying beneath her. The marriage seems dogged by tragedy, with a succession of miscarriages followed by a stillbirth. When war breaks out, Albert takes off, leaving Dorothy alone, where she falls under the spell of a young Polish airman.
Modern woman Roberta works in a new and second-hand bookshop, leading a pretty dull life, when all’s said and done. She has a passionless affair with a married man (a customer!), visits her father, slowly dying of cancer, and her grandmother, now in a care home. Her sole pleasure, it seems, is finding letters, cards and messages hidden in the second-hand books she sells.
Neither of these women is particularly likable, it has to be said. Roberta is just too timid and insipid and downright passive to be interesting. Dorothy keeps herself aloof from the inhabitants of the small village where she lives, refusing to join the community and making no friends. Her tragic life ought to make her a sympathetic character, but this is one area where the author misses a trick, for somehow Dorothy’s emotional state never quite resonates, and she seems to have a curiously flat personality. She is instantly attracted to the Polish airman, Jan Pietrykowski, and all thoughts of her husband and marriage are abandoned. When her husband returns home on leave, Dorothy shows no interest in him, or sympathy for his experiences. The result is not entirely a surprise.
In fact, this is a feature of the book – pretty much everything that happens is telegraphed in big letters from an early stage, so there were no unusual twists of any merit, and everything is fairly predictable. This in itself is not a problem, for a skilled author can make the journey interesting, even when the destination is never in doubt. Unfortunately, the author here doesn’t quite have that ability. Major scenes lose all emotional resonance, or are so clumsily handled that they are almost laughable. For instance, without giving away any spoilery details, there’s a moment where one character engineers a major confrontation over an action by Dorothy. It’s a very dramatic scene, where everything Dorothy hopes for could all be swept away. How will it be resolved? The reader waits with baited breath… and the confrontational character simply says, “Oh, all right, do what you want then,” and walks away. All tension dissipated at a stroke. There are several moments like that which are just clumsily written, and towards the end several people behave contrary to their previous characters – Mrs Compton, for instance, and Dorothy’s mother, where it all felt a bit too easy. And the love interest resolution in the modern section is very clumsy.
An irritant for me (and this is a nitpick, because I’m sure most people wouldn’t notice) was in the writing of the modern sections. These are written in the first person (I walked… rather than she walked…), and paragraph after paragraph was riddled with sentences beginning with ‘I’. Here’s an example: “I tidy shelves. I make sure they are not too tightly packed. I take stock each year,…” I don’t mind the simplistic, short sentences, but all those ‘I’s just jump out at me and upset me. It’s really hard to write in first person without scattering ‘I’s all over the page like pepper, but it can (and should) be done (even in a review! Now I’m seeing all those ‘I’s of my own). The visual element of writing is important. But otherwise, I liked the difference between the modern sections (short, staccato, self-focused) and the war-time sections (longer, more elegantly written paragraphs). It fitted well, I thought.
I understand that this was the author’s first published book, so it may well be that these little hiccups will disappear in later work. It’s an interesting and confident work, if a little flawed (to my mind). The underlying themes of family and babies are well drawn, even if the characters never quite came to life for me and there are just too many cliches. I would have liked it better if the author could have spun out some of the key moments a little longer, to draw out the emotions underlying them. I generally assign a star rating purely on the basis of my own personal enjoyment (I know, I know, perverse of me, so sue me), and initially, having not enjoying it a great deal and not found much to interest me in either main character, I was prepared to go with three stars. But since finishing it, the characters have stuck in my mind rather, and on balance I’m going to go with four stars.