Reviewed by Emma Crowley
It is 1915 and the world is being torn apart, but newlyweds Ruby and Jimmy Hawkins are sure their love will survive the trauma and tragedy of war. Sent away to fight in the desperate battles raging in Gallipoli, Jimmy plans for the future they promised each other and struggles to keep his dreams whole amidst the brutality of the trenches.
Back home in Sydney, Ruby reads his romantic letters, full of longing. But as weeks slip into months she is forced to forge her own life. A new job throws her into a man's world fraught with complications and as the lives of those around her begin to shatter, a powerful new attraction beckons. Realising she must change to truly find her way, Ruby discovers her own strength and independence - but will the price be her marriage?
The Soldiers Wife is the 28th novel from Australian author Pamela Hart who has written under pseudonyms and in different genres but this is the first time I have heard of this author. Both the title and the blurb appealed to me and I was keen to see what kind of writing style Pamela has.
Inspired by a true story The Soldiers Wife is set during World War Two. You may think you have read so many books set during this period and need a change, I admit this is what I thought but when I noticed this book was set in Sydney it seemed to be different and would hopefully prove a refreshing change. I have read numerous books of the war from the British side and how events in France and Germany panned out. But what about the Australians who also made their own sacrifices during this time of upheaval and destruction that touched every corner of the world? Overall the book was generally good, I'll readily admit it wasn't the best book set during this period that I have read but still I was glad to have given it a chance. I found it a light and easy read despite some of the experiences the characters go through. There were scenes and plot lines that tugged at the heartstrings but I didn't care for one particular character and maybe that is why I didn't feel the depth and emotion the author wanted us to.
Ruby is newly married to Jimmy Hawkins and hopes her marriage will be long and fruitful. The shadow of war in Europe is ever present and after a week's honeymoon Jimmy is off to join the Expeditionary Team and fight for his country and to save millions of people around the world. Ruby finds herself alone and adrift and decides to move to Sydney from the small outback town of Bourke where she had worked in the family drapery business. Her father is dead, her sister married so all who remains is her mother. Ruby needs a change or else she will be forever enshrined in the small town mentality. She can't sit and pine for Jimmy while he is away, waiting on that next letter or god forbid the dreaded telegram everyone woman at the time feared. Fair play to Ruby she knew what she wanted in life it was almost as if she knew if anything happened to Jimmy and she had remained in Bourke that was where she would stay forever. She realised she had ambition and a steely determination and she was set on putting her life on the right track. Ruby soon finds lodgings with Maree Hannah and her young son. Maree's husband Theo is away fighting. So the two woman share a connection.Maree was a super character slowly she opened up to Ruby and an everlasting bond was formed. She was a staunch supporter of Ruby and was always there to offer advice and support. Her son stole the scenes he was mentioned in and his innocence at what was going on in the world around him was captured perfectly throughout.
Ruby clearly grew as a person throughout the story, her strength and true character shone through. She acquires a job in Curry and Sons Timber Merchants working as the book keeper. Clearly this is a male dominated world where it is believed a woman's place is firmly in the home - housekeeping and rearing the children. To say Ruby comes up against opposition is an understatement but she is willing to forge on and break down those barriers which really shouldn't have been there in the first place. She forms a special bond with Mr. Curry whose son is away fighting in the same regiment as Jimmy. Their relationship is not conventional and Mr. Curry resists at every opportunity as Ruby tries to get through and reach the inner spirit and crack the shell that he has built around himself. I did feel very sorry for what happens to Mr. Curry and believe without the help of Ruby his business would have gone bankrupt and he would have remained locked away from the world forever.
Interspersed throughout the book are letters from Jimmy sent from where he is fighting. They give us a brief flavour as to what he is experiencing. Personally I would have liked some chapters from his viewpoint as I feel for most of the book I didn't know enough about his character and when he arrives home it was too late to get to know him despite what he goes through. I realise the author for part one might have wanted just the letters used as a means of communication between Jimmy and Ruby but I felt it wasn't enough.
Part one of the book meandered along at a slow and steady pace with plenty of repetition. It did help us familiarise ourselves with Ruby's period of adjustment and how she develops a routine, friendships and a firm solid position in her job but to me it became boring. I felt like elements of this had been done before in previous books I had read. Part two did pick up the story a bit more as Jimmy returns home wounded and unable to rejoin his unit. Ruby's freedom is now curtailed. She had longed for the safe return of her husband but I sensed she had enjoyed parts of her life more or less as a single woman. Now that the love of her life was back albeit a changed man she would once again have to get to know again. Jimmy had clearly been through a lot and returns home with both physical and mental injuries. He is not the same person he once was and both Ruby and Jimmy will have to fight through a lot in order to come out the other side if they wish their marriage to survive. Jimmy came across as selfish and ungrateful towards Ruby especially as she was doing her best to give Jimmy a normal routine and some stability after all he had witnessed and survived. Nowadays we would understand what Jimmy was going through and would have a name and treatment and support for it but in those days it was just a very steep learning curve. 'All he wanted was a version of the girl she had been in Bourke, and that girl was long gone'. Both parties need to comprehend that war alters everything not just the day to day routines.
The Soldier's Wife as I have mentioned is a good read but I wouldn't have it in my top reads for the year. Pamela Hart has done a satisfactory job of portraying life in Australia during World War Two. There is a good basic storyline here and I did love Ruby and Maree as characters but overall the first half of the story was dragged out and part two felt too rushed as if the author knew she had to warp up the book within a certain word count. She did touch on all aspects associated with the war - the loneliness, terror, heartache, upheaval and disruption to name but a few but the book didn't fully hit right where it matters straight to the heart. As for the ending I didn't feel it was the right ending for this book especially reading of Ruby's feelings in part two. I do think there are plenty of people who would enjoy this read curled up on the couch on a cold winters afternoon. But for die hard fans of historical fiction set during World War Two maybe stick to something else.
Many thanks to Helen Upton from Little Brown for sending me a copy of The Soldiers Wife to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.