560pp, hardback, £14.99
Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside
Rachel Hore’s ninth novel is an unashamedly romantic tale, spanning some seventy years. Briony Wood, a historian, is on holiday with friends in Italy. She is fascinated by a derelict villa set in the hills behind Naples that was used as a base by British soldiers during World War II. Briony’s grandfather had been in the area in 1943 and she wonders whether he had visited it. A local woman gives her a sheaf of letters written by a woman called Sarah Bailey, from Norfolk, to a soldier named Paul that were found in the villa. Briony finds herself driven to discover more about Sarah and Paul, and her late grandfather, Harry Andrews.
The action switches to 1938, and Sarah Bailey has returned to England, following the death of her father. With her mother and sister, she sets up home in the Norfolk village of Westbury, not far from a lovely old manor house. Ivor, a distant relation who lives in the manor house, takes an instant liking to Sarah and she is flattered by his attentions. Paul, a young German man, lives in the area with his mother who is English. They escaped Germany when Paul’s father was killed. As the winds of war blow stronger, Paul finds that not everyone is happy to have a German living nearby. Sarah and Paul find they have a common interest in gardening and despite Ivor’s efforts to belittle Paul, they become firm friends.
Initially, Rachel Hore’s writing is overly stuffed with adjectives that overwhelm the story. However, once the settings and main characters are introduced, her writing settles down into a smooth rhythm and the pages turn with ease. The settings are well researched and both the 1940s and modern day Italy are richly atmospheric. Wartime Norfolk is full of small but telling details and although there are some stock characters – the posh manor family, the ex-soldier estate manager – they do not detract from the enjoyment of the tale. Sarah is the most developed character and it is easy to sympathize with her. In Ivor, Hore indicates a cruel streak from the outset, while Paul seems a little passive at first. Briony’s need to find out about her grandfather’s life is well drawn, and the letters by Sarah are touching and full of character.
As the war gathers pace, life changes for everyone, with even Ivor’s family finding their luxurious life slipping away. Sarah works hard gardening under the watchful eye of the government inspectors who want every patch of earth to produce food for the country. Hore echoes the burgeoning relationship between Sarah and Paul in the modern day sections with Briony and the man she falls in love with. It adds interest to both relationships, showing that while the world may have changed, the complications of love relationships span the decades. This is an engaging read – with a well disguised twist – and the mix of history and romance is handled with great skill. A fabulous book to take on holiday.