This is a poignantly balanced story told in two timeframes - one during the First World War in the muddy and bloody trenches and fields of France, and another, 15 years later, following that same path through France - now in the process of repairing and trying somehow to forget - as Effie Shaw searches for the grave of her fiancé.
Effie is a likeable woman - loyal, kind, witty - and naïvely unaware of the truths of those she loved and lost, until she inherits a diary written by the soldier for whom she's acted as housekeeper and friend for 10 years, and instructions of a journey she must take through France as a condition of his will. What follows is an engaging, intriguing story as Effie sets out on the route instructed by Laurence in a series of `letters from the grave', to find the real truth of his - and her fiancé's - war.
I say `poignantly balanced' because of the skilled and utterly compelling way in which the author contrasts war-entrenched France with its later bruised, battered, optimistic self in those immediate post-war years. The scenes on the battlefields and in the trenches are heart-breaking. Clearly the author's knowledge of the time-period (the back flap tells us she has a PhD in history with a special interest in WW1) comes to the fore in creating these bloody scenes as incredibly believable moments. But there's no dry history here - it is her skill as a novelist and observant human being that takes us inside the heads of those men to show their fears, desires, the way in which the smallest pleasure comes to mean so much, and the total desperation of those who know their odds of dying as they climb over the edge of the trench far outweigh their chances of survival.
This would be a relentlessly dark read if not for the other people with whom Effie mingles - the ladies at the tearoom back home, the folk she meets along her journey, Henry, the wounded soldier who encourages her to be more daring, to dance, to drink champagne and, of course, Reginald... the affable dog with a penchant for sugared mice and brandy cream. Their stories balance the bleak landscape of war-ridden France and curiously act both as respite from those darker scenes and also as poignant contrast, ensuring the full horror of that war, those thousands of wasted lives, remains with the reader long after the final page has been turned.
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