The Year After by Martin Davies

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The Year After by Martin Davies

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A page-turner that'll attract Downton Abbey fans as well as those who like their post-Great War drama slightly heavier, as in Atonement. This is a literary time machine, recapturing a crueler era while topping the experience with an enticing mystery.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks
ISBN: 978-0340980446

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Captain Tom Allen is home from World War I. Whilst waiting to be demobbed, he receives an invitation to attend the annual Christmas house-party at Hannesford Court, the stately home of Sir Robert and Lady Stansbury. He used to look forward to it before joining up and so decides to attend again, but everything has changed. The Stansbury's heir, Harry, and son-in-law, Oliver, were killed and second son, Reggie Stansbury, remains in a nursing home with no legs and dwindling self-respect. Whilst coming to terms with the devastating realisation that he's one of the very few men in their set to return alive and entire, Tom remembers pre-war Hannesford and the night when his friend Professor Schmidt died at such a gathering. Everyone believes it was unsuspicious but gradually things are coming to light that hint of hidden secrets. Along with her Ladyship's former companion, Anne (who has issues of her own), Tom decides to investigate as truths are exhumed, making him doubt whether those happier times were as idyllic as he remembers.

Your factoid of the week: Martin Davies writes his novels in long-hand whilst travelling on buses and trains. However, he doesn't only cover a lot of ground physically, his novels get around too. His previous books have touched on botanist Joseph Banks in The Conjurer's Bird and China in The Unicorn Road. This time he's a little nearer to home as he evokes an England that's trying to adjust to the peace after winning World War I.

Tom Allen returns expecting a land fit for heroes and instead finds a changed world and a nation with psychological scars deeper than any physical scar he saw during combat. The house party isn't any more reassuring for him. The Stansburys are adjusting to those who didn't return whilst Reggie spends his days at the nursing home in an angry bluster, refusing to see those who love him.

Please don't imagine this to be a kitchen sink drama though. The author also gives us a sense of national attitudes and arguments that subsumed the surviving heroes' welcome. We feel Tom's puzzlement (and what's now known as survivors' guilt) when the idea of war memorials are debated, giving the impression that only the dead provided a sacrifice worthy of gratitude or recognition. Then there's the polite middle class euphemisms to cover the devastation of shell-shock and the then unknown post-traumatic stress syndrome which are just as puzzling to us with our modern understanding and cultural shift regarding disability.

Meanwhile a different kind of shock pervades Britain's women as some begin to realise that there aren't enough men to go round, denying many the chance of marriage and motherhood. This causes a different sense of bereavement as they mourn the loss of what many feel to be their life's purpose. Indeed, Martin Davies leaves us in no doubt as to the era our imaginations inhabit as we turn the pages.

The day to day minutiae are salted with the unfolding mystery surrounding the Professor's death. As the chapters alternate between the voices of Tom and Anne, the years roll back to a pre-war existence. What starts as a story of personal and social displacement, lilts into a drama of unrequited love (but its ok fellas: it's not mushy) and secrets that had been buried for five years are exposed to daylight. It begins as a background storyline, but as twist follows twist, the truth is exhumed, building to a crescendo with effects that remain unpredictable right through to the last pages. You can try to guess the outcome, but you'll only get so far, thank goodness (and Martin Davies).

A special thank you to Hodder Paperbacks for sending us a copy of this book for review.

If you've enjoyed this and fancy exploring this period further through fiction, we recommend Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo and, of course, the aforementioned Atonement by Ian McEwan.

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