Monday, January 18, 2016
Two British novels with contemporary and WWII settings
My two most recent reads were both novels set in Great Britain; both had split settings, with the main
stories being contemporary ones, but which relied on unraveling earlier WWII stories. I first read ELIZABETH IS MISSING by Emma Healey, a book I obtained from the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium (WPLC). If you look closely at the cover you can see this teaser,"How do you solve a mystery when you can't remember the clues?" That is what drew me to the book, but I was NOT prepared for how unsettling the read would actually be. Maud clearly suffers from some form of dementia. She has nursing help that comes daily and her daughter stops each day. Large notes are pasted all over the house instructing her not to cook or leave the house. Tinier scraps of paper stuffed in her pockets try to order her actions. But each day she discovers one scrap that takes over her thoughts -- Elizabeth is missing, and Maud takes off trying to find out what this cryptic note means.
When she mentions it to her daughter or anyone else, she is always given a brush off. Readers eventually learn that Elizabeth is a former friend and her house is in the same neighborhood as Maud's, but when Maud does make it there, no one is home. When Maud sees a moving van there, she suspects that Elizabeth's son has done something to his mother so he can have her possessions Quickly you get the feeling that Elizabeth has probably died or is in a facility somewhere and that Maud can't process that. Yet we are never told for sure, and it is quite late in the novel before we learn the truth. Maud's searches for Elizabeth always send her mind back to the time right after WWII, and it appears those memories are more lucid and complete than her present day thinking. Maud's older sister Sukey, recently married at the time, suddenly disappears and is never found. Each flashback adds a bit more to the story about Maud and Sukey, but soon we are back in the present with a very disoriented Maud. These switches are jarring and create an uneasiness that realistically portrays the world of someone with dementia. No matter how much Maud wants to hold on to the real world, her mind distorts it. We find her lost on the streets and watch her interact with people she doesn't recognize but should (daughter and granddaughter) and it is heartbreaking. Yet Healey inserts bits of humor, shows us a very patient and loving daughter, and gives us an ending that reminds us that no one should be forgotten or ignored.
Iona Grey's LETTERS TO THE LOST (which I borrowed from the Millpond Library) was published one month before Emma Healey's book, and it too depends on a lengthy series of flashbacks to tell an unfinished tale. It too involves an empty house. On a cold grey night, a young woman (Jess) flees her abusive boyfriend and finds herself in the back gardens of an abandoned house. Knowing she will not survive in the cold, especially since she ditched her shoes so she could run faster, Jess breaks into the house. Almost penniless and afraid her boyfriend will find her, she stays hidden there for days, eating out of date foods she finds in the pantry "tins." When she does finally make a quick trip out, she is almost caught by Will, a young man whose job it is to investigate whether or not unclaimed estates actually have heirs. He represents a firm that is on the same level as "ambulance chasers" and he has been sent to try to find out if Nancy, the woman who had lived in the house, has any heirs. When Will is told by his boss to forget this house and Nancy's estate because it is worthless, he can't.
Soon after Jess's break-in, a letter arrives through the mail slot. The United States postmark piques her curiosity and Jess opens it to find it is a love letter sent by a WWII vet, now in his nineties, trying to find the woman whom he lost many years before. That letter sends Jess on a search of the house and answers. When she finds a box of old letters from the same man to "Mrs. S. Thorne," she begins reading and is captivated by what they reveal. Each letter singles a change in time/setting for the readers, and we are given a more complete narration than Jess gets from the soldier's writing. But even she can piece together that these young lovers face obstacles that go beyond war time rationing and the pilot's dangerous missions. Jess becomes determined to find the S. Thorne if she is still alive, and to also straighten out her own life. Those endeavors will bring her back into Will's life, and his own troubles add yet another layer to this complex story.
Two very different books with just the hint of similarity in structure. Both well written, but in greatly different styles, showing that good writing is complex and not easily described. Both novels are debut works and I certainly will be followed by many more by each other. Have you discovered a debut author recently or an author that is new to you? Let me know.