"The Secret Letters" Catherine Law
"In her hands were his letters to her: unread, unknown, unearthed forty six years after she had last seen his face."
The prologue of "The Secret Letters" immediately drew me in. I had already been very tempted by the blurb - any story combining undiscovered letters that have been hidden, unopened for nearly 50 years and a setting of the Second World War suggests a great historical drama of romance, tragedy and survival. And Law does not disappoint.
The prologue sets up lots of questions as we are introduced to Rose, her mysterious pile of letters and her daughters as they prepare themselves for a trip to Prague. Law ably establishes a scene which awakens the reader's sense of curiosity. It's clear there is a dark, painful secret lurking within Rose and maybe even a life or a side to her that her family have never known about. The way Rose handles the letters reveals quite a lot of information so the reader can take guess at what story might unfold but there is still enough of a sense of secrecy to make you want to read on.
"Rose could not look her daughter in the eye as she reached for the letters with a surprisingly steady hand. Cradling Krystof's letters, so fragile, so light, she noticed how they were disintegrating at the folds, a little torn. Like me, she thought. His looping hand was off-venter, the inked postmark, Praha 9 June 1946, fading. Once again, her mind was lame. She could not bear to think. She wrapped them tenderly back up in her scarf and stowed them in a corner of her suitcase."
There's also an implication that Rose's world has become very limited and so the idea of her suddenly travelling to Prague feels out of character and perhaps physically demanding which accentuates the tension and atmosphere of expectation.
Small details are added into the conversation between Rose and her daughters, once more hinting at more secrets and hidden truths.
"'It's so small I've never noticed [the small crescent shaped mark on Rose's cheek] It's always been part of your face. It's not important, Mum.'
Rose pressed her lips together. Nancy didn't know how wrong she was."
Rose is an intriguing protagonist. Appearing so ordinary, almost retiring but obviously a woman burdened. Her stoic mannerisms beg a flurry of answers and I was certainly curious to find out what this unassuming woman had seen or suffered. She's clearly put her parenting and happiness of her family above everything else but now it feels as if a day of reckoning is near. Her fear of constantly being discovered is implied by Nancy's throw away comment about things buried in her subconscious and then further heightened by Rose's admission that:
"Her daughters had never been aware of the chilling, draining emptiness of the rooms once their playing was over and they were tucked up in bed; the creeping loneliness that followed her solitary figure upstairs every night."
We are then transported to the Second World War and Rose's life as a young girl, only daughter and engaged to Will - a very controlling character who fits the desired requirements of her parents. Already Rose feels like a girl trapped and frustrated.
I enjoyed the story as it followed Rose to her new home on a farm. Ignoring her parents and Will, she does her bit for the War by taking up the position as a Land Girl. This section was very reminiscent of lots of TV adaptions and particularly for me, it echoed the 1998 film "The Land Girls" with McCormack, Friel and Weisz which I liked as despite the book's historical context, it felt very alive and relatable. I liked the sparky character of Mel - refreshing company for Rose - and the homely, gentle character of Betony the farmer's wife and of course, Ted, the farmer whose initial gruffness gives way to a man full of empathy and kindness. They become her new family; her nickname "Ginge" almost releasing her from her past life and helping her assert herself as a more gregarious, independent and adventurous woman.
And while at the farm, she meets Krystof, a Czechoslovakian officer in the army and falls deeply in love.
But it is the war so tragedy then starts to strike. First Krystof is posted away, then Rosie is called home. I thought the description of Rose's return to her street was very evocative and visual.
"Her mother's enamel colander lay in the vegetable patch alongside a dented tin of milk, discarded among her father's charred cabbages. It was as if the soil was belching out random bits of rubbish. The chicken coop was a tangle of wire and singed straw; she spotted the brown corpse of a hen, feathers lifted by the breeze........The black and white bathroom tiles looked as pristine as ever and yet the wall they were attached to was bulging like a distended stomach. Her parents' bed was sheathed into sticks, lying on the parlour floor; pages of the Radio Times flicked over and over, as if being read by the wind."
I think that last line about the Radio Times is excellent.
In the turmoil that follows this devastating event, Rose makes some ill judged decisions. Will reappears and takes advantage of her weakened state. He is menacing and the repetition of words like "knowing" and "knew" highlight how much Rose has changed and how ill suited the couple are.
"'I knew it, Rosebud,' he whispered to her in the semi darkness. "I knew you'd one day be mine.'"
Will is a perfect "baddie". He's a villain that makes you want to shout out and save Rose from him. There is very little that is redeeming about him and therefore the contrast between the him and Krystof are very obvious. When Will moves Rose into their new home, Law's description of the house captures Rose's emotional state of mind and her inward knowledge that she is desperately unhappy.
"....the Old Vicarage stood in its dripping garden, its windows blank and unwelcoming. Paint peeled and bubbled on the front door and moss carpeted the stone steps. Rose shivered in the hallway.... the stairs rose in front of her into darkness...her nose twitched at the smell of unlived-in spaces, undusted nooks, the aroma of mouse.......dust on table....grime on shelves.....stale smell...."
But Rose is a fighter and sets out to follow Krystof to Prague, chasing hopes of a happier life.
The story of Krystof and Rose is heartbreaking, tender and very moving. Their story is one of love, longing, loss and sacrifice. Law manages the plot well, capturing the decisions and dilemmas that faced people at this time convincingly and with sympathy. There are some nail biting moments and some moments of high tension as well as moments of poignancy and sadness.
I enjoyed the actual war time story more than the plot line set in 1992 following Rose as an older woman, although it was interesting to see Law knit all the threads and characters together and resolve the relationship between Rose and her daughters as they discover the truth about their mother. This is quite a romantic read, tear-jerking at times and will appeal to people who like that kind of genre.
My thanks to Bonnier Zaffre and NetGalley for an ARC of this novel in return for a fair and honest review.
"The Secret Letters" is published by Bonnier Zaffre on 6th October 2016.
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