War was declared at 11.15 and Mary North signed up at noon.
The cover of this book has the most beautiful photograph of an extremely well dressed woman posting a letter into a post box in a square that is reduced to rubble.
Backdrop: London, 1939 to 1942. ‘It was a city in love with beginnings.’ I find WWII endlessly fascinating. Chris Cleave the author speaks about why World War II is so vital for novelists very eloquently here:
I had high hopes for this book, I received it twice on my birthday because I had been talking about it so much. Every Chris Cleave novel (The Other Hand, Gold, Incendiary) has floored me. He writes in a truly beautiful but hard-hitting way. This is first historical novel.
In a powerful combination of both humour and heartbreak, this dazzling novel weaves little-known history and a perfect love story through the vast sweep of the Second World War- daring us to understand that, against the great theatre of world events, it is the intimate losses, the small battles, the daily human triumphs that change us most.
Mary is thrust into teaching, as all the school masters are away at war. She is quite indignant about this at first. But she accepts it. ‘Mary almost wept when she learned that her first duty as a schoolmistress would be to evacuate her class to the countryside. And when she discovered that London had evacuated its zoo animals days before it’s children, she was furious.’ What Mary actually ends up doing, is teaching the children that have been rejected and sent back from their temporary homes in the countryside.
Mary, as an aristocrat goes from quite enjoying the novelty of the idea of war, herself and her friend Hilda go by train to view the first bombed site in London, never dreaming it would soon be them, to truly suffering. They both sign up to drive ambulances almost on a whim.
The other main characters are Tom Shaw, an education administrator who reluctantly gives Mary her first job and becomes her lover. His best friend and flatmate Alistair signs up for the war as soon as it begins. Alistair sees so much horror from early on, and he becomes rather distant. The humour of Tom’s letters revive him, and he is jealous of Tom’s newfound love, but this is nothing until he actually meets Mary.
Tom gives Alistair a homemade jar of Blackberry Jam before he leaves for war, and Alistair keeps it, through starvation and being shipped to further and further battle zones, to share with Tom when it is all over. It’s a really beautiful symbol of friendship.
It’s such a human story. Even against such a dramatic and seemingly well known background as the Second World War. Chris Cleave makes the most familiar, yet surprising observations:
One didn’t understand, until one had seen a great many bodies, the unconscious effort that one must be making every minute simply to keep one’s hands and face and clothes clean. The world’s surfaces were so filthy that the living touched them only with the tips of their fingers and the soles of their shoes. How grubby it was to die, to give up making that effort.
There’s a graphic description of something Alistair witnesses in Malta, a German pilot crash lands in the street, and the locals attack him. I completely zoned out in Starbucks, it was so vivid and brutal. You completely understand Alistair trying to stop them.
If you’re interested, you should watch these short videos of Chris Cleave speaking about the book. I really enjoyed them and he talks about his work so much better than my rambles.
This, my 29th read of the year could be the best book of 2016 so far. I have been talking about it to anyone who would listen and trying to thrust it into customer’s hands in work. A love story, but so much more than that. It did not disappoint, I didn’t want to finish reading, and I’m proud that I must be descended from the Mary Norths and Alistair Heaths of the world.