Having read so many books in the last few years that tell stories of the First World War, I found it almost strange to read a book set thirty years later, during another war, which showed the massive social changes that the technological and societal advances of just thirty years can bring. This book is set in the Home Front, but the violence enacted on the people who live through the time makes it almost seem as if at times they too are on the front line.
Ignore the wishy washy cover and ridiculously optimistic blurb; this is a subtle and strangely haunting tale of the effect of great loss on the psyche. Beautifully told, it starts with a straightforward Keep Calm Best Foot Forward Rah tale of good old Blighty taking a hit and singing throughout and gains momentum as you realize you are trapped in the protagonists nightmare; being unable to move on from the events of the mass bombing of Exeter in 1942-part of a series of bombings around the UK known as the Baedekar Bombings. These blitzes on historic and beautiful cities were Hitler’s retaliation for the RAF bombing out cities such as Lubeck. Having grown up associating the blitz with London, it was refreshing to read a book about the blitz set outside of this city and made me learn an awful lot.
Set partly in 1942, partly twenty years later, the book focuses on the interlinking lives of Alma Braithwaite, a school girl during the war who continues to work in the boarding school that was her home into the sixties, and Robert Gunner, a quiet man, obsessed with lighthouses, who takes in the bombed-out schoolgirls when they loose their home in the blitz, and who twenty years later is still healing from his own personal losses the war left him with.
Told alongside the stories of Alma and Robert is that of Miss Young, the new headmistress of the school Alma works in, who represents the changing world of the 1960s, modern thinking, unity, and moving on from the war. It is within the antithesis of Miss Young and Alma that the main drama lies, and the question ‘How do we move on?’ stirs the novel forward.
Telling the story of the effect of the war of people who would now be in their eighties is an interesting one as it is still within living memory. This book could start of lot of conversations, and would make a very very good bookclub read. Clare Morrall has been Booker Prize shortlisted before now, and I can see why. This won’t be, it isn’t quite smart enough, but I can see it getting a Woman’s Prize longlist at least. A very clever book, far more so that whoever designed the jacket gives it credit for.