A war to end all wars…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Elizabeth Smith has lodged with the Armstrong family in Tufnell Park in London for several years, becoming a friend to them all, and especially to Grace, the daughter of the house. While Grace is away from home on a visit, Elizabeth receives a letter – a highly unusual occurrence for this rather isolated woman – and a visit from a strange man, whom the servants felt was threatening. By the time Grace returns, Elizabeth has destroyed all her personal property and left, leaving no forwarding address. Grace is a little hurt, but mostly she’s concerned – it all seems so out of character for Elizabeth. And then a body is found in the Thames. When it is confirmed that it is Elizabeth and the police seem content to call it suicide and let the matter drop, Grace finds she can’t let go – she must find out more about Elizabeth’s past and what drove her to leave as she did.
Set just after the end of the Great War, this is as much an examination of the impact of the losses so many endured as it is a mystery. Scarlett evokes her post-war setting excellently, both physically and emotionally. She shows a society where no person has been untouched by loss – even those lucky enough to have their sons or husbands return to them have to deal with the psychological aftermath, or in many cases with lives shattered by life-changing injuries. But she also shows the resilience that somehow allows people to go on, to start fresh and to begin the slow process of rebuilding lives or building new ones. She shows society changing, with the working classes unwilling to go back to the rigid class systems of before and less deferential than they once were. Servants are hard to come by, since women have had the experience of doing more exciting and better paid jobs in factories and offices during the war, and don’t relish returning to the drudgery of domestic labour. For the middle and upper classes, the old rules of social interaction between the sexes are gone too – no more chaperones, nightclubs springing up, ladies drinking cocktails and smoking! For by far the most part, it’s entirely credible and free of anachronism, with just an occasional word choice that doesn’t quite feel right.
Unfortunately near the end two of the compulsory themes of the decade are dragged in – homophobia and sexual abuse. I assume authors can’t get publishing contracts without them, a bit like the new Oscar rules. At least racism was omitted for once. It’s not that I object to any of these themes – I’d just like them not to be quite so ubiquitous. I love chocolate fudge cake, but I don’t want it with every meal. Believe it or not, there are other aspects of the human condition worth exploring. And in this case, I felt the subjects of loss and renewal were more than sufficient, especially since she dealt with them so well.
Apart from that box-ticking exercise, I found the story interesting and compelling. Grace, who is our main character, has herself lost both a brother and her fiancé, and the story of her slow process of grief and gradual recovery is sensitively done. She too has had grim wartime experiences, working with severely injured men as a VAD nurse, and is now, still only at the age of 22, working with a nursing magazine, hoping it might lead to an opening into journalism. She is a strong, resilient and likeable character whose investigations stay well within the limits of believability throughout. With the help of her friends and the family servants, she begins to trace back through Elizabeth’s life on the basis of the few scraps of information they have all gleaned from this very private woman over the years. As Elizabeth’s past is slowly uncovered, we are led to some dark and shocking revelations.
It’s a slow unravelling of the mystery, but steady, so that I didn’t feel it dragged at any point. The pace allows for plenty of space to explore different reactions to the cataclysm of the war, from those men directly affected trying to deal with mental and physical injuries, to those who had endured a long wait ending perhaps with the awfulness of the telegram telling them their son or brother or lover would not be coming home. Scarlett reminds us that for many the verdict was missing, presumed dead, leaving a tiny glimmer of hope that cruelly drags out the process of acceptance. She shows us how this feeds into the rise of spiritualism, as people desperately seek some kind of closure – the possibility at least of saying goodbye, when there isn’t even a grave to visit. We see how society is divided into those who find comfort in the belief that the fallen had died gloriously for a great cause and those who feel it had all been an unforgivable waste, and how each side of that divide unintentionally adds to the hurt of the other. And yet through all this, Scarlett avoids mawkishness and over-sentimentality.
So, despite my mild disappointment at the late introduction of over-used themes, overall I loved this one. A strong mystery contained within an authentic in-depth look at a specific and significant period in time, and peopled by characters I grew to like and care about. I will certainly be reading more from this talented author, and recommend this one highly.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus via NetGalley.