Posted in Book Reviews

Last Letter Home – Book Oxygen Review

Last Letter Home

Rachel Hore

Published by Simon & Schuster 22 March 2018

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.

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Posted in Book Reviews

The House on Bellevue Gardens – Book Oxygen Review

The House on Bellevue Gardens

Rachel Hore

Published by Simon & Schuster, 25 February 2016

464pp, hardcover, £14.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

 

Rachel Hore’s eighth novel is a warm tale of ordinary people navigating their way through the complexities of life in a big city. Each character narrates his or her own story, which gives a welcome sense of intimacy and brings their individual dilemmas into sharp focus.

In a quiet London square stands a charmingly shabby house, the only one that has not been split into flats. This is number eleven, Bellevue Gardens, home to Leonie Brett and her collection of waifs and strays needing some TLC in order to face the world again. Leonie charges nominal rents to her tenants and provides a shoulder to cry on for free.

Peter, an artist, lives in the basement and came as a sitting tenant when Leonie inherited the house from a close friend. He is gruff to the point of rudeness but Leonie knows he is troubled and feels responsible for him. Bela and Hari, an elderly couple, are quiet and almost invisible, rarely venturing out of their room. Then there is Rick, a shy young man who works in a supermarket but really wants to publish his graphic novels.

Leonie is pining for the return of her grandson, and is horrified to learn that her stay at Bellevue Gardens is under threat. The flashbacks to her life as a top model during the Swinging Sixties are fascinating. Falling for an up-and-coming photographer, Leonie is swept up in the excitement of the fashion world and soon the two become a formidable team. However, Leonie tires of the early starts and constant travelling and Hore precisely shows the disintegration of her marriage.

Two new arrivals at the house are Rosa, a Polish woman looking for her brother, Michal, and Stef, a nervous young woman who has lost her identity in a suffocating relationship with the controlling Oliver. The only way she can break away from him is to hide and Bellevue Gardens becomes her sanctuary. Slowly, she regains her sense of self and revives the plans and ambitions she had before Oliver took over her life. Stef’s story is sensitively handled although not wildly original, and Hore avoids any easy or schmaltzy solutions. Falling for Stef gives Rick the impetus to follow his own dreams which lie far away from supermarket shelves. Meanwhile Rosa is uncovering family secrets which she hopes will lead her to much-loved Michal and is surprised to find so much compassion in an alien city.

Hore blends her characters into an uplifting story of people gaining confidence from each other and discovering their path to happiness. There are obstacles in their way but each finds their courage to change and move on with their lives. Hore’s writing style is relaxed and conversational which results in a tale that glides by easily with its message of courage, inspiration, and the right to follow your own star. This novel would make a great holiday read with its many story strands and cosy setting.