Friday, 12 August 2016

Past Encounters: Davina Blake

Terry Tyler is one of Amazon's Top 1000 Reviewers and she has hit on a lovely idea to get more people writing reviews. I have mentioned that Amazon reviews are important, haven't I?

Terry has launched #AugustReviews to try to persuade readers to post just one review on Amazon during August. It can be as short or as long as you want. Just post one review (or two ... or three ... or as many as you want) and then tell the world about it on Twitter. Terry will add you to her #AugustReviews Hall of Fame so authors will realise what a lovely person you are and you can bask in 15 seconds of internet fame and the eternal gratitude of writers everywhere. You can read more about the idea on Terry's blog (which I do recommend because there's a lot of good stuff on it.) #AugustReviews is featured at If you're really nervous of writing a review, there's even a link to a handy quick-start guide to becoming an Amazon reviewer.

It would be lovely if some of you reviewed my books for #AugustReviews (nobody has yet).

Portrait of an author waiting for reviews
If you can't find words enough to express your love for my books, please review someone else's and I will forgive you.

I'll start the ball rolling with a review of Davina Blake's Past Encounters. A slimmed down version of this will be posted on Amazon before the end of the month.

There seems to have been a glut of World War II novels lately, at least if those reviewed by the Historical Novel Society are anything to judge by. When I was young, these books formed a distinct genre, often called 'war stories'. They were essentially stories of battle, historical only insofar as the uniforms and weaponry were of their period. Now, though, many stories take a wider perspective, looking at the impact of the war on civilians and, sometimes, on those soldiers who did not see conflict. Past Encounters falls firmly into this category, with the events of the war seen through the eyes of Rhoda, struggling with rationing and the perpetual threadbareness of wartime life in Carnforth, and also the experiences of Peter, taken prisoner before he fires a shot and struggling to survive in a Nazi labour camp.

This book works on many levels. Rhoda's life gives a convincing insight into the world of the women left behind when their men went off to war. Her experiences have interest added by the filming of the famous movie 'Brief Encounter' at the station where she works on the bookstall. The accounts of the filming are supported by extensive research, detailed in an end-note.

Peter's story is a tale of horror. I had no idea that British POWs were treated anything like as badly as this, though  the end-note says that Peter's experience is based on memoirs of other survivors (with various sources quoted). As Peter comes to realise, the awfulness of his experience is dwarfed by the atrocities of the Holocaust, so the way that people treat it is to ignore it. It's not helped by the fact that POWs are always, at some irrational level, blamed (and blame themselves) for their own fate: good soldiers don't surrender.

The book is told from the perspective of 1955. Peter has returned from the war with no obvious signs of what captivity did to him. There are no flashbacks, no PTSD. But the experience has destroyed something important: he is not the man who left Rhoda in 1940. He has lived through things that no one should have to see and, to survive, he has done things that shame him. Worst of all, he can only talk about what happened with one man who shared his captivity.

Rhoda, too, has changed. She has moved from being a girl to a young woman. There are things that happened to her during the war that she can't share with Peter. Peter has proposed in a world that both of them have left. They should have accepted this and moved on. But it's 1945: engagements are not be casually broken. So two good people are trapped in a marriage undermined by silences about the things they care about and an utter inability to understand what has happened to the person they once loved.

Davina Blake captures the social attitudes of the period with a sharp, and not unsympathetic, eye. Rhoda's mother had made her marriage work by applying herself unrelentingly to the business of being a 'good wife'. We are at first shocked by how she stands by her husband, a petty domestic tyrant, but when we see him wounded after one of those acts of unacknowledged heroism that war throws up, we see the decent man struggling to hold his life and his family together. We come to understand why his wife loves him and why he is worth her efforts. Rhoda, in time, must come to see Peter for what he is and to make her marriage work by being, in her turn, a good wife. It's all the more powerful because the message is not one that we naturally warm to nowadays. Peter, surely, should have been abandoned to a counselling service and Rhoda should have found a more fulfilling, if less "respectable" partner. But in 1955 life was not like that and Rhoda's choices are judged and defined by the standards of her time.

There is an enormous amount of incident in this book and I'm not about to discuss the details for fear of spoilers, but I was gripped. It's the first time in a while that I've struggled to put a book down. And be warned: this isn't a feel-good romance. No book that features the fire bombing of Dresden as background is going to be a cheerful read and parts of the story are brutally cruel. But it does show our parents' generation at their best, quietly and decently doing the right thing, making the best of an imperfect world. It's an approach to life that was once, I suppose, a defining characteristic of the British. For better or worse those days are gone, but Ms Blake gives a glimpse of that world and of the wartime experiences that, perhaps, created and defined it.

This is a brilliant book and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

The promotional bit

My own books are set back in the 19th century, but they, too, look at the impact of war on the men who were there. The Williamson Papers follow the adventures of John Williamson, who travels to the Far East in search of adventure. He ends up caught in a local war in Borneo that sees peace restored only at a terrible cost in human life. Moving on to Cawnpore, he lives through the horrors of the Indian Mutiny and the Cawnpore Massacre. His story ends back in London where, like Peter, he has to come to terms with the things he has seen and done. For a selection of the things people have said about them, have a look HERE. After you've read Davina Blake's book, I strongly suggest you have a look at mine. (Click on the book images on this page for buy links.)

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