Orange Prize winner (A Spell of Winter, 2001) Dunmore, whose prolific output ranges from grim realism (The Siege, 2002) to spellbinding fantasy (The Greatcoat, 2012), offers the heartbreaking internal struggle of a young soldier adjusting to life at home after World War I.
Daniel has returned to the ingrown, rigidly class-conscious Cornwall community where he grew up. Since his mother died while he was overseas, he moves to the isolated farm of Mary Pascoe, an ailing old woman. By the time the novel opens, Mary has died of natural causes after telling Daniel he can have the farm. Following her wishes, he has buried her on her land. The problem is that he hasn’t reported her death to the authorities. And the longer he waits, the harder it is to tell anyone, even Felicia, the younger sister of his best friend, Frederick. Frederick and Daniel always considered themselves blood brothers despite their differences in class and intellect. Frederick grew up with Felicia in a big house full of books that Daniel devoured as a child even after dropping out of school at 11 to support his already ailing mother. Giving up the scholarship he deserved, Daniel worked as a gardener while Frederick, a terrible student who could barely read, went off to boarding school. But their friendship persisted. When war came, Frederick became an officer. Daniel, a gifted marksman, chose not to become a specialist and found unexpected camaraderie in the company of other enlisted men. Now, despite the moments of respite, even joy, that Daniel experiences with Felicia—who has suffered her own losses—Daniel is haunted by memories of Frederick and unwarranted guilt. From the first page, Dunmore shares Daniel’s inner life, building an increasing sense of dread while exposing the tragedy of great promise thwarted by forces beyond Daniel’s control.
Dunmore’s crystalline prose is almost too good; the pain she describes is often unbearable to read, yet the emotional power resonates, and Daniel is impossible to forget.