HOW MUCH WOULD YOU SACRIFICE FOR WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN?

DEVOTION – Louisa Young

Devotion is the third book in the trilogy that began with My Dear I Wanted To Tell You… and was followed by The Heroes Welcome. The novels trace the lives of Riley, Nadine Waveney, Peter Locke and their families through the First World War and its aftermath, and on to the gathering war-clouds of the 1930s. Young has a worthwhile story to tell and tells it with thought-provoking honesty and a lyricism that evokes the period beautifully.

Devotion opens in 1928 and takes up the story of the next generation ­– those born at the close of the First World War who will be approaching adulthood as the next war begins. We follow Tom Locke as he grows into adolescence and begins to holiday in Rome with an Italian branch of his adopted family. He is captivated by Italy and by Aldo, Susanna, and their childrDevotion coveren – Vittoria, Stefano and Nenna.
As the years pass by, Tom watches with growing awareness and, ultimately, horror as Mussolini leads the people of Italy towards his shining vision. Aldo is fiercely patriotic and believes in Il Duce’s plans for Italy with such fervour that he refuses to believe his family’s Jewish heritage will, in the eyes of his countrymen, mark them as enemies of the State and put their lives at risk. Wanting to save his beloved cousins from their inevitable fate, Tom risks his own life to make them see the truth of their situation.

Back in London meanwhile, Tom’s father Peter – badly traumatised during the First World War – is finally  beginning to rebuild his life and renews his relationship with coloured American jazz singer Mabel Zachary; a talented and independent woman with a secret that will turn Peter’s world upside down. Realising he is falling in love with Mabel, Peter negotiates his way through the engrained attitudes of racial and class bigotry that were endemic in 1930s Britain.

Louisa Young weaves together these two narratives with skill, drawing parallels along the way ­– some obvious, others not so. She presents a worldview while simultaneously exploring how that world affects the lives of individuals. Devotion is a novel of crumbling ideals and blind faith; of awakenings, acceptance and of love. It exposes the lies we are told by those in power and the lies we tell ourselves in order to live.

 

Devotion is published by The Borough Press – thanks are due for the ARC.

 

 

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The Ballroom – Anna Hope

A foreboding asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors seems an unlikely place for a ballroom, and an even less likely setting for a love story of extraordinary tenderness and innocence, yet this is the remarkable achievement of Anna Hope in The Ballroom.

The novel opens in Spring 1911, with Ella Fay being dragged through the The Ballroom
doors of Sharston Asylum; struggling and disoriented, she has no idea what fate lies in store. Her incarceration is treatment for supposed ‘hysteria’, manifested by her smashing a window in the mill where she has worked since childhood. Sharston is a strangely egalitarian institution where the class divide between ladies and millworkers is non-existent; all are cooped up and bound by the same strict rules until they are considered ‘cured’ and fit for release.

John Mulligan arrived at Sharston years ago and resides in the entirely separate men’s section of the asylum. Having grown used to a life in captivity, John is trusted to work outdoors in the fields or digging graves and, through being allowed outside the asylum walls, he manages to cling to his sense of self. On Friday evening each week, the best-behaved inmates of both sexes are allowed to mingle in the extravagant ballroom, the single point at which the male and female sections of Sharston join. Here, music is played by an orchestra led by the young and impressionable Dr Charles Fuller, who believes that music has a calming and restorative effect on troubled minds. It is in this ballroom that the taut, almost impossible courtship of Ella and John begins.

The summer of 1911 was notoriously long and hot, and Hope exploits this sultry oppression to perfection. The growing emotional tension practically hums with energy as Ella and John negotiate their way around seemingly insurmountable obstacles to find one other. Through the character of Charles Fuller, Hope also deftly investigates the theory of eugenics, which was prominent during the period. Rather than sterilising the ‘weaker’ members of society to prevent procreation, Fuller believes that with support and therapy, individuals can be improved and rehabilitated. His idealism is turned on its head as he confronts truths about his own life – a shift in perception that Hope neatly signals by his move from the tradition of classical music to the flamboyance of ragtime jazz.

The Ballroom is populated by well-written, fully-fleshed characters struggling to break free of the restrictions imposed upon them by society. The harshness of life in an asylum is juxtaposed with tantalizing glimpses of the freedom and beauty of the Yorkshire countryside and, through the central relationship of Ella and John, Hope captures this tension as beautifully, and cruelly, as a butterfly in a glass jar.

A book that will live in your memory for a long time after the last page has been turned.

 

The Ballroom is published by Transworld Books on February 11. Many thanks to Alison Barrow for sending an ARC.

Nursing Through Shot & Shell – A Great War Nurse’s Story

Over the last year or so, I’ve developed a great interest in the role of women during the First World War and have read widely on the subject. The most interesting and informative bNursing throughooks are those based on personal memoir because it’s like looking into the past through a different window each time. Dr Vivien Newman’s latest book: Nursing Through Shot And Shell, A Great War Nurse’s Story, published by Pen and Sword Books is one such gem. Based on the previously unpublished memoirs of Beatrice Hopkinson, a member of the author’s family, Nursing Through Shot and Shell gives a vivid, and often uncompromising, account of what life was like for a member of the Territorial Forces Nursing Service (TFNS).

In the first section of the book, Newman provides the reader with historical background to Beatrice’s diary and this section really is invaluable. Newman’s research is impeccable and her concise, informative style gives readers all the context necessary about Beatrice, her background and nursing during wartime. By the time I started on Beatrice’s diary, I knew enough about her world to become quickly immersed in her recollections.

Despite having read several other memoirs and narratives on nursing during the Great War, I discovered perspectives and experiences here that I haven’t come across before. For example, while stationed in France, Beatrice belonged to an elite group of nurses who were effectively ‘rapid response’ teams. These six person teams would be sent out to provide support where needed, usually at Casualty Clearing Stations close to the front line. Their life was demanding, arduous and often dangerous; only the most competent and skilled nurses were selected. Beatrice’s account of this time are gripping and revelatory.

Another perspective we don’t often get is what life was like as the war
came to an end. During the closing weeks of the war, the German front lines were being pushed further back and inevitably, as allied forces advanced, so the nursing teams moved with them. This meant that Beatrice found herself in the middle of newly abandoned battlefields which had, just a week or so earlier, been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. She was faced with desolation on an apocalyptic scale – a land of water-filled craters, deserted trenches and acres of barbed wire. Towns and villages reduced to little more than the sign that marked their boundaries. Her account of entering the recently captured seven-mile-long Bellicourt Tunnel is so astounding that it deserved to be read twice. Beatrice remained in France and Belgium until she was demobilised in October 1919, almost a year after the armistice. Her diary for this post-war period is no less engaging because, despite being kept busy with influenza patients, she also records travelling through the newly liberated towns and cities of Belgium.

For anyone interested in the experience of women on the Western Front, Beatrice’s diary is self-deprecating, pragmatic and utterly compelling. Highly recommended.

Nursing Through Shot & Shell can be bought here:

http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Nursing-Through-Shot-Shell-Hardback/p/9338

Disclaimer – Renee Knight knows how to deliver her punches

I try to avoid the hype that surrounds the publication of a new book. There is so much talk about how it’s the book of the year/decade/century that, as readers, our expectations are elevated beyond reason. There are sample chapters available, reviews and blogs, all whetting our appetite, making our fingers itch and persuading us to pre-order. For me, the problem with this is that by the time I get to read the book, I am expecting to find one of the greatest works of literature in English – which is a lot to lay on any book! Inevitably, this ends in a sinking disappointment, which is rarely anything to do with the quality of the writing or the talent of the author. I like to begin a book knowing as little about it as possible and invariably, I end up enjoying it much more.

Addicted as I am to Twitter, this attempt to avoid the hype of publication is futile. My Twitter feed is filled with literary related content because it’s the thing I am most interested in. So, when the publication of a new book begins to pepper my timeline, it registers with me and I spend weeks trying not to read too much about it until I can get my hands on a copy and decide for myself. All this brings me to the rather stunning debut novel Disclaimer by Renee Knight. Disclaimer popped up on Twitter a while back and the premise struck me as unique and intriguing so I desperately tried to ignore all the tired Gone Girl and slightly fresher Girlhero-portrait-disclaimer-renee-knight On The Train references until I could get my hands on a copy. I was not disappointed.

The protagonist, Catherine Ravenscroft, appears to have it all: a successful career and a solid marriage to a loving husband. Disclaimer opens as Catherine and her husband move to a smaller property now their grown son has left home. Amongst the chaos of half un-packed boxes, Catherine discovers a book entitled ‘The Perfect Stranger’ which she doesn’t recall having bought or being given. Inside the front cover, there is a disclaimer: ‘Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.’ Intriguingly, this has been crossed out in red pen.

As Catherine begins to read, her life is quickly unravelled about her. ‘The Perfect Stranger’ is her story. Not the Catherine that the rest of the world knows, but a story that no-one knows – or so she thought. In chillingly intimate detail, the author of ‘The Perfect Stranger’ has written a damning account of an event in Catherine’s life that she has kept buried for twenty years. The implications of the book are horrifying, particularly when she discovers that a copy has also been given to her son.

The cracks in the facade that is Catherine’s life quickly become evident and Renee Knight handles the pacing with aplomb. The art of thriller writing comes in knowing when to deliver the punches. Make the reader wait too long and momentum is lost, deliver it too early and the tension is lost. Knight delivers her first punch at exactly the right moment and she goes on punching, each one perfectly timed. Using two different narrative perspectives, Knight creates characters and voices that are human, fallible and sometimes downright frightening. The switch between past and present tense enhances the novel’s pace where, in less capable hands, it could simply have confused.

I am a notoriously slow reader, but I could not put Disclaimer down. I read it while standing in a queue, I read it while cooking dinner – I even read it while walking up stairs (not recommended). Each punch spurring me on for the next one. By the time I turned the last page, I was reeling from it. If there’s one thing that will stay with me above all else though, it’s that truth is a difficult thing to get at and everyone has their own version of it.

I’m aware that I am now contributing to the hype, but for what it’s worth, Disclaimer is a book that deserves its hype and one that will stay with you for a good while after you finish it