Motherland by William Nicholson

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Motherland by William Nicholson

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A love triangle mainly set in 1940s and 1950s England concentrating on the emotional impact of the War on both those who went and those who were left behind. There's also a fairly strong Catholic faith element to this story - expect guilt and repression as well as love and loyalty.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 544 Date: February 2013
Publisher: Quercus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781780876207

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William Nicholson's Motherland starts and concludes in the present day with Alice Dickinson travelling to France to meet her recently discovered grandmother, but the huge majority of the book concerns a love triangle between Kitty, Alice's great grandmother, an army driver in Sussex in 1942, Ed, a Royal Marine commando and his school friend Larry, a liaison officer with Combined Ops. The story spans the war, particularly Mountbatten's disastrous raid on Dieppe, and the post war years as Ed and Larry seek to overcome their war time experiences and the impact of these on Kitty and her relationship with these two men and how they relate to other people, particularly women.

The story within a story works well enough to get us to the real story, but doesn't add a huge amount to the book. Alice doesn't really get much from this other than the unknown history of her family. As a set up, it's fine to get us to the past but it does mean that the ending is rather less powerful than if we had just ended in the 1950s.

This is the fourth of what Nicholson calls his 'Sussex novels', along with The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, All the Hopeful Lovers and The Golden Hour. While each of these are entirely stand alone books, Nicholson offers a little treat to avid readers of his books with glimpses of some of the characters and their pasts seen throughout the oeuvre. If you haven't read any of the others yet, you won't miss anything, but if you have, it's a nice treat to be reminded of locations and families that you have encountered elsewhere. It also means that there is no need to read them in any particular order.

Where, for me, Nicholson excels is in his dialogue. This is not too surprising as his credits include screenwriting for both Gladiator and Shadowlands. It does mean that the war section though, which is a relatively small yet pivotal part of the book, lacks the visceral quality that other authors such as Sebastian Faulks achieve and this means that while it is clearly well researched and accurate, you never really feel the devastating impact that it had on Ed in particular.

I didn't particularly warm to any of the three main leads however. Many of Nicholson's characters are repressed and quite sad. Much of the story relates to Larry, who is rather the gooseberry in the love triangle. I often found myself more interested in some of the more minor characters, particularly the rather wonderful Louisa Holland, a friend of Kitty's from her driving days. She's such a force of nature that she seems somewhat underwritten in this story.

While it might not be my favourite of Nicholson's books to date, he is always highly readable and tells a good story with interesting insight into human traits. Here he gets to play with love, loyalty, betrayal, faith and doubt. Every now and then, he also offers up a thought of a view that is a new way to look at things even though for much of the book he's dealing with fairly well trodden situations. For me though, there was just too much of a gap between the experiences of Kitty and the impact on Pamela, (Alice's grandmother) and therefore on Alice herself. It's this mise en scene aspect that ultimately had me yearning for more connection to the main narrative. For all that, the story is addictive and for the most part enthralling though.

Our grateful thanks to the kind people at Quercus for sending us this book. We also have a review of The Lovers of Amherst by William Nicholson.

Also recommended on the personal impact of war fiction is Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift. We also enjoyed Paper Wings by Linda Sargent.

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