I haven’t read as many books as I’d like this year, but there are two that clearly stand out for me as memorable reads of 2015. Fittingly for the 100th anniversary, they are both set in and around WWI.
#Book 1: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
This book is strictly speaking a memoir, but it is so engrossing it moves at the pace and in the narrative style of a novel. It’s the story of Vera’s experience both just before and during WWI, when she left her Oxford studies to become a nurse. What is particularly striking about the novel, is not just the heartbreak and loss she herself experiences throughout, but how much the war effects the English as a nation. The ongoing rationing, loss and horrific stories of life in the trenches, ground the people down to a collective depression. As is often the case, when the conflict started the consensus was it would be a fleeting event and the toll would be small. Of course the complete opposite was true.
I think this passage captures the general mood of despair and lack of control over the characters lives. More importantly we see how central love is to the heart of the novel.
And then, all at once, the whistle sounded again and the train started. As the noisy group moved away from the door he sprang on to the footboard, clung to my hand and, drawing my face down to his, kissed my lips in a sudden vehemence of despair. And I kissed his, and just managed to whisper ‘Good-bye!’ The next moment he was walking rapidly down the platform, with his head bent and his face very pale. Although I had said that I would not, I stood by the door as the train left the station and watched him moving through the crowd. But he never turned again.” ~ Vera Brittain,
#Book 2: Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
This novel is a completely different book, but the effects of WWI are also key to the setting of the 1920s. After the death of the father and brother in the war, a young woman and her mother have fallen onto hard times. To make ends meet they are forced into taking lodgers in their formerly grand house. This quote gives a good sense of where Frances’ life is starting from at the beginning of the novel.
“She rose from her bed full of new resolutions. ‘We must get out and about more,’ she told her startled mother. ‘We must try different things. We are getting groovy.’ She drew up a list of events and activities: concerts, day trips, public meetings. She went in a fit through her address book, writing letters to old friends. She borrowed novels from the library by authors who had never interested her before. She began to teach herself Esperanto, reciting phrases as she polished and swept.”
However, things do not go as planned. The first plot twist takes us by surprise:
“And that was all it took. They smiled at each other across the table, and some sort of shift occurred between them. There was a quickening, a livening- Frances could think of nothing to compare it to save some culinary process. It was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan. It was as subtle yet as tangible as that.”
~ Sarah Waters,
Even when we think the novel has become a lesbian love story, the plot suddenly throws us against the wall and takes a dramatic turn. What has been a fairly slow moving pace speeds up to breakneck speed and the reader is in a full blown thriller, filled with nail biting suspense.
“Some things are so frightful that a bit of madness is the only sane response.”
This is by far the best Sarah Waters novel to date. She has matured as a writer and the characters are so well developed we feel both an affinity and a loathing for the protagonists as the story follows the plots twists. The turn of events challenges the morality of two ordinary women who find themselves in an untenable situation after a completely unplanned and dreadful occurrence.
The novel also gives the reader an excellent look at the class differences of the day, as well as the gradually changing, but still very limited role offered to women in society.
This is my final post for 2015. Thanks so much for all your support and wonderful comments throughout the year. Have a good holiday season and I’ll see you back here in January!
What were your two favorite books from 2015? Come join the discussion. Share the love and please post this on your favorite social media.
Connect with A.K. Andrew: