Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Emma's Review: The Secret Letters by Catherine Law

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

A truth buried for over forty years.
A love that lasted a lifetime.

Rose Pepper has kept her wartime past a secret for decades. Forty years ago, she fled communist Prague and left behind the love of her life.

Now in her sixties and with two daughters, Rose discovers a bundle of unopened letters sent to her by her lost love, hidden beneath her home. Confronted with the possibility of facing up to her past, she decides it's finally time to go back to where her story began and uncover the truth buried for so long in Prague . . .

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It was quite by chance I came across the The Secret Letters by Catherine Law and I think it was both the cover and title that made me want to read this book. Then having read the blurb I knew this was a book I would enjoy as I love historical fiction. This chance discovery proved to be well worth it as I loved this story from start to finish and Catherine Law is definitely an author whom I know I want to read more from in the future. If you were to read the blurb one would think the sole focus of this book would be discovering where the letters came from and who wrote them and why but that is not the case at all. In fact the discovery of said letters after 46 years, hidden under floorboards, is merely the catalyst that sets in motion a journey of recollection and rediscovery bringing events, emotions and long held secrets rushing to the surface. 

The Secret Letters was a heartbreaking story of love and loss that packed so much into each chapter that I felt quite bereft to leave the characters behind once the story had ended. I felt I had invested so much time with Rose and I was emotionally wrought by the time I read the last line. It's quite often the books that you come across by accident or the stories you don't expect that much from that provide us with deeply satisfying, gripping reads with characters who become so real you feel like you have known them in real life. This book proved to be all that and much much more and it should be read in as few sittings as possible as you are sucked into the world of Rose Pepper and the harrowing journey she experiences mixed with times of happiness and love during World War Two.

The book opens with a brief prologue as Rose is looking out over the tiny hamlet - Trelewin in Cornwall. She has been resident in the vicarage for many years and has only recently discovered a collection of letters long hidden under floorboards she has trodden over for many many years. These letters bring a rush of memories to the surface as she knows they are from a man who held such a special, significant place in her heart since the war although events meant they were cruelly forced apart. Rose has made a decision not to open and read the letters until she returns to Prague with her two daughters Lara and Nancy. Prague will only become very significant later on in the book. I liked how secrets were with held right until the very end, the author could easily have had Rose just open the letters immediately and everything would have resolved itself. Instead we are taken back to 1943 and slowly piece by piece things start to become apparent for the reader.  In fact the letters didn't become all that relevant and were pushed to the side, and normally this would have annoyed me as they are featured so prominently in the title, but here it didn't matter in the slightest as such a brilliant overall story was built up piece by piece. Such a well rounded overall view of all the characters, the settings and reasons for their actions was presented that I just found myself completely lost in what was going on. It became so compelling and emotional and usually I don't care too much for characters or really get what they are going through but here I felt every moment of Rose's anguish, fear and abhorrence yet at the same time when she was experiencing some happiness and joyful moments I felt those too as her warmth and compassion radiated from the pages. She was a person who certainly weathered many ups and downs and the life she knew at the beginning of the war had completely altered by the its conclusion.

Rose like many women during the time of war knew she had to do her bit for her country. She soon finds herself at Pengared Farm working as a land girl under the watchful eye of Ted Cumberpatch and his wife Betony. Meg is a fellow land girl and although Rose finds it tough at first they soon become almost like a family unit and work away at the farm providing for those who need it most. Catherine Law excelled in her descriptions of the farm and the surrounding coastal area. The whole setting could have been real so vividly was it described.It was almost cocooned in its own little corner of Cornwall as if the war wasn't happening at all despite the fact they were doing war work themselves. Being at the farm gave Rose a chance to get away from fiancée Will, that in itself sounds so strange but right from the outset Will was a character who no one would like. He was mean, bossy, cold, domineering and manipulated Rose in so many ways particularly at times when she was the most vulnerable and would only have needed support not someone twisting her arm to get his own way. Will always presented a front to certain people which made Rose feel as if maybe she was imagining what was going on and I hated that about Will. He only had his own interests at heart and his love for Rose was definitely not genuine. So who in the slightest could blame Rose when she meets a Czech officer near the harbour side one night and her world is forever changed. Krystof is the polar opposite to Will, he came across as kind, caring and someone whom you could place your trust in. I could see why Rose quickly became smitten and this aspect of the storyline never became contrived or far fetched. It was war time women had to make the best of the situations that presented themselves and grab happiness when it came along if only by chance. I knew she had a 'fiancée' and usually I would be so angry with a woman for doing what Rose did but here I believed her actions were completely justified. The brief times the pair spent together at the farm brought such light and warmth to the book but as tragic circumstances unfolded the book only began to take even more twists and turns. 

I felt Rose for quite the majority of the novel was very weak when it came to Will but on reflection I think her mind was in such a muddle due to events that she allowed herself to become swept up within his power. The further we delved into the story the more I detested him. Part Two of the novel took on a vastly different tone from that of the first section. All credit to the author she took us to a whole different setting and time immediately after the war which never usually gets much attention in books of this genre. She really did show the other side of the coin and it felt very oppressive yet realistic as everything overnight didn't return to happiness and people weren't enjoying life as a bed of roses. In fact I felt this section of the book was far stronger than the first not that I hadn't enjoyed part one. It took us to places I would never have thought possible on first glance at this book and highlighted how love can be so deep rooted and strong that you will do anything to keep it going even when all the odds are stacked against you. My heart was in my mouth as I read through this section you never knew what was around the corner for any of the characters and having become so completely wrapped up in their lives all you wanted was a positive outcome. I did question whether the ending was all too brief with things wrapped up too suddenly for me but I suppose the prologue and conclusion were short in order to let the other parts of the story shine and to allow the reader to fully immerse themselves in the brilliant storytelling and characterisation on each page. 

Catherine Law had clearly done such meticulous research for this book and in the end it mentions how her aunt's own story inspired her to write The Secret Letters. She has certainly done the story some justice and I wouldn't hesitate in the slightest to recommend it. Amidst all the Christmas books being published in the next few months don't let this excellent story pass you by. I was delighted I took the opportunity to spend several hours lost in Rose's story.

Many thanks to Bonnier Publishing – Zaffre for my copy of The Secret Letters to review via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

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