Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Three women, once enemies. Their secrets will unite them.
The First World War is over. The war-torn area of Flanders near Ypres is no longer home to troops, but groups of tourists. Controversial battlefield tourism now brings hundreds of people to the area, all desperate to witness first-hand where their loved ones fell.
At the Hotel de la Paix in the small village of Hoppestadt, three women arrive, searching for traces of the men they have loved and lost.
Ruby is just twenty-one, a shy Englishwoman looking for the grave of her husband. Alice is only a little older but brimming with confidence; she has travelled all the way from America, convinced her brother is in fact still alive. Then there’s Martha, and her son Otto, who are not all they seem to be...
The three women in Liz Trenow’s In Love and War may have very different backgrounds, but they are united in their search for reconciliation: to resolve themselves to what the war took from them, but also to what life might still promise for the future...
Many thanks to Pan MacMillan for my copy of In Love and War to review via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
In Love and War is the beautifully written new novel from historical fiction author Liz Trenow. This a genre which I would say is my favourite and I can't get enough of it. This story is a detailed observation of how families and individuals attempt to pick up the pieces left behind by the ravages of war in this case the First World War. It is a stunning observation of three women's attempts to overcome their grief, to find answers to the innumerable questions running through their minds. In a bid to find peace and resolution a journey is undertaken by all three not just in their homeland, no they want answers and to achieve they travel back to the scene of where their loved ones fought but in doing so they paid the ultimate price.
Each women is from a vastly different background and different circumstances have brought them to Belgium. As we travel with them in their attempt to seek closure the reader as do the characters experience a myriad of emotions as the full horrors of what their men and loved ones endured becomes clear. This is no easy path to uncover the truth or the burial sites and the author does not shy away from the brutal realities for all involved at the time. If she had done so the book would have lacked depth and substance and not been the remarkable, emotive story it turned out to be.
In Love and War is entirely fictional but was inspired by real people, places and events. Tubby Clayton, the army Chaplin/priest who helps Ruby was a real person and it was lovely to see the light shone upon a person who may have ultimately been eroded from history despite the valuable role they played. The themes of the book are very much ones of bereavement and how to cope but also reconciliation, forgiveness and acceptance play a huge part. This book is not full of drama as there had been enough dramatics and horror with the unspeakable events of the war with so many lives lost. Instead this is a subtle exploration of trying to find understanding in order for peace to enter into one's heart. The pace of the story is slow and languid, it doesn't need twists and turns on every page to keep the reader hooked. Sometimes the quality of the words speak for themselves rather than actions. There is no necessity for this as the characters and the trip they are on through such astute, careful writing does the work instead of surprises thrown in just for the sake of it. Yes towards the end there are a few shocks, some pleasant, some not, but they didn't interrupt the flow of the overall story. They were placed at essential points and helped the reader clarify things or assumptions they may have had were confirmed or denied.
Initially, I wondered was having three women as the main characters just that bit too much to focus on but I was quickly proven wrong. As there are many sides to a story, so there are many sides to a war and all three provided valid viewpoints and allowed a well rounded opinion of things to come through. It never felt like the author herself was coming down on one side or the other. She stood back and took in all aspects and presented a very well balanced viewpoint. It was different to see a German woman featured - Martha and her son Otto. Normally I read stories focusing on either of the wars and it is all about the English side so it was refreshing and an eye opener for me. It makes the reader realise the opposing side, despite the terror they inflicted, had families waiting at home for them too and at the end of the day they suffered just as much as everyone else did. Martha is fulfilling the final promise of her husband who passed away from the Spanish flu. She wishes to reunite medals with her son Heinrich. This is a bittersweet journey filled with pain and heartache as they are not reuniting with their loved one instead searching for the place of his burial. One of hundreds of thousands of men who lost their lives. Being German and travelling to Belgium would certainly have not been recommended following the conclusion of war. Hatred, anger, suspicion and revenge abound but a mother and wife's love is strong and she wishes to see the request through until she finds that resting place.
Ruby Barton is travelling from England, leaving on a boat for the first time in her life. Belgium is her destination and she wishes the reasons for her journey were not there. That she would be journeying from England with a happier goal in mind. She is on a tour organised by Thomas Cook of the Belgian battlefields in Flanders, where families of those who fought can see where everything happened and try and find the grave of their relation amongst the hundreds of thousands. In this case it is Ruby's husband, Bertie. She doesn't want to go on the trip. She is grieving, she wants peace, to live a quiet ordered life honouring his memory and never to allow heartache to reach her door again. She wants to remain shut off from any further mentions of love. The reader can see there is something else also eating away at her and until she can satisfy this no resolution can be found. She feels duty bound to visit the grave sites as instructed by her parents in law.
Ruby was very much like a fish out of water and I felt she was brave going on her own not knowing what she would encounter. A country torn apart by war with villages decimated and people struggling to live amongst ruins and the lack of food and facilities. How macabre it must have been for the Belgians to have foreigners as such still encroaching on their land and country even after the war had concluded. On the other hand these tours must have brought solace to families to see where their loved ones had fallen and been buried. It must have been an incredibly difficult journey for anyone who undertook it 100 years ago. Hopefully with the tours people would come away with a greater appreciation of what war really means and a determination never to allow it to happen again. If only they knew what the future would hold.
The third woman couldn't have been more different from Ruby and Martha, Alice Palmer comes from a wealthy American background and is in Europe to search for her brother Sam. He was last declared missing and the family want affirmative answers. Was he captured by the Germans? Was he a deserter? Or was his ultimate fate - death? Alice too was brave like Ruby but I think I preferred Ruby's character. Alice seemed to be over the top and at times it felt romance played a more important factor than finding the answers did. The women only had a week to uncover what they were looking for and Alice seemed to be more enamoured with her old flame Daniel Martens. She conveniently forgot she had a fiancée waiting back at home for her. Yet she was the force that pushed Ruby on, to abandon the organised tour and go to Hops to meet the locals and ask the questions that needed to be spoken out loud. The details of the village of Hops and the surrounding areas were incredible. The author clearly undertook a lot of research and I build up a vivid, realistic picture in my mind that really enhanced my enjoyment and understanding of the story. It made me appreciate how much the people who were very near to the front-lines of the battle fields endured and how they suffered long after the final shot was fired. So much historical detail was brought to life through the three women's stories and I felt every emotion they were experiencing. I knew there could not have been a happy outcome for all, that would have gone against the authenticity and the character of the book but still I was ever hopeful regarding certain characters.
In Love and War was an excellent book. It's wrong to say I enjoyed or loved it given the subject matter. Maybe those are not the best words to use but that is how I felt about this story. The characters and setting leap off the page to meet you and transport you back 100 years to a world very different in some ways to the one we inhabit now yet in others war is still very much a part of our lives today. Liz Trenow has done an exceptional job of bringing to life characters you feel such empathy and compassion for. I would never have given any thought for what happened after the war as the world kept turning and other events stepped in to take its place, make the news and have people talking. It was fitting in the centenary year of the conclusion of World War One that this was published and Liz Trenow should be proud of the story she has written. It's beautifully crafted and one which gives lots of food for thought and discussion. One not to be missed.