The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is going to be unavoidable across all types of media this year, fiction publishing no exception. The experience and legacy of the Great War has given us some outstanding literature. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, and Pat Barker’s Regeneration all spring to mind as novels I want to re-read this year. I’m also going to read some of the books published in 2014. I’m interested in how the conflict will be portrayed a hundred years after it began. It seems to hold a particular place in the cultural memory of Britain, a mixture of pity and admiration, sadness and pride. The lost generation; a waste of young men; sent to their deaths; over the top; shell-shocked; the trenches; no man’s land – these words bring with them a host of emotions and images. The First World War is a very emotive subject.
The first novel set during the war I’ve read this year is Jennifer Robson’s Somewhere in France. At its heart it is a romance across class divides. Lilly, or Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford to give her full title, is the daughter of an earl. Her domineering mother who believes that Lilly’s place is, as her own, as a wife and mother constricts her life. Lilly dreams of education, travel, purpose. At the other end of the social scale Robbie is from the Glasgow slums, the son of a dustman. A scholarship has allowed him to transcend his humble beginnings and become a surgeon. Edward, Lilly’s good-natured brother, is the link between the pair.
With the outbreak of war Edward enlists into the army and Robbie goes too, as a field surgeon. Lilly is left at home rolling bandages and knitting very badly, until a confrontation with her parents pushes her to make a decisive break for independence. She gets the opportunity to drive an ambulance in France, assigned to the same field hospital as Robbie. The story follows their relationship for the duration of the war, as they try to make sense of their feelings for one another and the situation they are in.
I found Somewhere in France an enjoyable read. For much of the book Lilly and Robbie’s main form of communication is through letters, and I thought this worked very well. I liked the contrast between what they were able to express to each other via the written word and in person. The story centres on their relationship and consequently I did feel somewhat distant from the actual war. Robbie does give some fascinating insights into his work as a surgeon, but I would have liked even more of the visceral details. I didn’t get a good sense of how Lilly felt about her work; she empathises with Robbie’s distress but seems emotionally removed from the injured men she transports. Duty was the overriding motivation I got from Lilly. She is desperate to do what she considers her duty, and pushes herself to go beyond it, for example by reading to the soldiers on the ward in the evenings, but we don’t get her emotional response. It’s a conversation Lilly has with her brother about how he’s reacting to the death and destruction around him that highlighted this for me. I wonder if the sense of duty they have been brought up with has created a barrier?
Although I was involved in Robbie and Lilly’s relationship, I was less directly connected to the broader narrative. There is one particularly moving scene that looks beyond the love story though, when Robbie writes to the parents of a young man who has died in his care. That did make me well up with the personal tragedy each death caused. I also believed in Lilly’s dissatisfaction with her lot and her desire and determination to break out. Like her brother Edward, Lilly can make friends outside of her social class. Lilly wants to be judged on her merits not her family. Her old tutor Charlotte is an intriguing character. I wanted to know much more about her and the slightly strained relationship between her and Edward. This is left unresolved in the book, but I’ve read on the author’s website that a second book is planned that takes up Charlotte’s story. Which thought leads me to the ending of Somewhere in France. The last few paragraphs were a bit of a disappointment to me, unfortunately. It seems to end in a rush, and I was left a bit confused. Now I know a sequel is planned, things might get resolved/explained of course.
I spent a very pleasant Sunday afternoon reading Somewhere in France. It held my attention throughout and I liked the writing very much. I think the war acts as a backdrop to the romance, although the possibility of social change and mobility it wrought does directly affect the characters. It didn’t give me any new insight into the experience of war but it does illustrate the chains of social class, especially where they intersect with those of gender.
Somewhere in Franceis published in the UK tomorrow in paperback and eBook. My thanks to HaperCollins 360 for sending me an advance copy for review.