|We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A novel that reflects the changes in society during and after World War I - a popular topic, especially during the war's centenary year. However, despite being predictable in places, the author personalises the struggles for and against modernity with excellent set pieces and interesting insight.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 420||Date: February 2014|
|Publisher: Honno Welsh Women's Press|
|External links: Author's website|
Hugo and Elin are settling down to life at home in Hiram Hall now Hugo is back from the Boer War. He refuses to speak about his experiences in Africa but carries the psychological effects. However, appearances count for a lot so they both continue to run the house, gardens and staff while Elin tries to ignore the deficiencies in their marriage. She succeeds as well but then two things change her outlook: the arrival of daring adventurer Lady Margaret ('Mouse' to her friends) and the less welcome outbreak of World War I. Both will leave their indelible mark so that, for Hugo, Elin and many others around that time, there'll be no going back.
This is Welsh author Juliet Greenwood's third novel, again exploring what it is to be a woman in both idea and identity. This time she's chosen to set it against WWI and its aftermath as we travel with Elin from the early days of the conflict through to 1925 when the consequences are still being played out across Britain.
We stand by Elin as she struggles to be the perfect wife but is shocked by a chance encounter with Mouse who becomes the catalyst for Erin's striving for emancipation. However Hugo has set ideas about women's capabilities in general and his wife's in particular and therefore doesn't gain any brownie points by appointing the enigmatic Jack Treeve to run the estate in his absence. This is a job that Elin can do perfectly well herself. Eventually though Elin will learn that her husband's employment choices could be a lot worse than Jack.
Although at times Juliet over-emphasises her point about women having to counter expectations and culture, she writes sympathetically about both genders. This definitely not an 'all-men-bad/all-women-wonderful' story. We may side with Elin, but Hugo is equally painted as a victim of his time, strait-jacketed by his inability to show emotions or share confidences with his wife regarding the gaping hole in their lives. It just isn't the 'done thing' and their relationship suffers as a result.
The other tour de force of this novel is of course Mouse. She's a wonderful jolly-hockey-sticks type with the subtly ambiguous amorous preferences. She also causes one of the exciting central set pieces that will take Elin out of her comfort zone metaphorically as well as literally.
Alongside the exploration of contemporary issues (including conscientious objection) there are twists and surprises once this slow burner begins to subsume us. For instance, looking back at the war through the prism of victory that now colours our vision, I hadn't realised the British paranoia levels were as high. This was brought home to me in a very telling scene in which Hugo prepares Elin for what he deems to be the worst before he leaves for the front.
All the minor literary hiccups (including some very Noel-Cowardesque romantic dialogue) are easily overlooked because Juliet writes with obvious passion for and knowledge of her subject. Indeed Juliet communicates with an emotional eloquence and understanding that's contagious in a good way making her novels very much worth our time.
We'd like to thank Honno for providing us with a copy for review.
Further reading: If this appeals and you'd like to read more about the scar that World War I left on communities, we recommend the beautiful The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman which provides the Australian viewpoint.
You can read more book reviews or buy We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood at Amazon.com.
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