In Ferns’ debut historical novel, two English sisters follow different paths before and after World War II.
In 1937, free-spirited Rachel discovers that she’s pregnant, and she turns to her down-to-earth sibling Veronica for support. Veronica marries airman Richard Mathews, and Rachel, after giving birth to daughter Susie, moves in with one of the men she’d been seeing, who soon brings drugs and abusive behavior into the house they share. Veronica attempts to help Rachel and protect Susie, but Rachel resents her interference, and the sisters drift apart. Veronica moves to the countryside as World War II intensifies. As London faces the threat of German bombings, Veronica persuades a reluctant Rachel to send Susie to her home as part of a general evacuation of children from the city. When it appears that Rachel has been killed in the Blitz, Veronica and Richard adopt Susie, who grows up with no memory of her birth mother. After the war, Richard returns home, scarred by his military experience, and turns to heavy drinking. In the 1950s, Rachel suddenly returns, forcing the family members to come to terms with secrets they’ve kept and with their responsibilities to one another. Ferns introduces a number of nuanced and engaging secondary characters, including Veronica’s theatrical best friend Heather, who brings a touch of lightness to a story laden with heavy themes. The war and its aftermath are thoughtfully handled, and the characters experience growth and newfound maturity over the course of the novel. The postwar scenes of Richard’s alcoholism and subsequent treatment are particularly well -done and reflect Ferns’ real-life background as a retired psychologist. The prose is generally strong, although the dialogue is often stilted, as when characters awkwardly avoid using contractions: “I am not sure this is the right place for me,” Richard says at one point. “I am uncomfortable.”
A thoughtful novel that shows war’s impact on people and communities.