Sunday, 14 January 2018

Emma's Review: The Secrets Between Us by Laura Madeleine

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

High in the mountains in the South of France, eighteen-year-old Ceci Corvin is trying hard to carry on as normal. But in 1943, there is no such thing as normal; especially not for a young woman in love with the wrong person. Scandal, it would seem, can be more dangerous than war.

Fifty years later, Annie is looking for her long-lost grandmother. Armed with nothing more than a sheaf of papers, she travels from England to Paris in pursuit of the truth. But as she traces her grandmother’s story, Annie uncovers something she wasn’t expecting, something that changes everything she knew about her family – and everything she thought she knew about herself…

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Many thanks to Random House UK, Transworld Digital for my copy of The Secrets Between Us to review via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

The Secrets Between Us is the third book from Laura Madeleine and my god what a read this turned out to be. I read Where the Wild Cherries Grow last year and still have The Confectioner's Tale on my TBR but with this new read Laura has certainly confirmed what a brilliant author she is. Initially while reading this book I had similar feelings as to when I was reading Where the Wild Cherries grow. Those being that this was an OK read with nothing much to set it apart from most of the historical fiction I love to read. Then bang there was that pivotal moment, that point where all my opinions changed and this book turned from a nice enough read to a completely, unputdownable book that I tore through the pages to discover the ending.

I think that's what this author does, well in my experience of reading her books this is what I think happens. She lures you in with lots and lots of descriptions of the characters and scenery, the setting is explored and to me not much really happens. The story appears to be ambling along and you are waiting and waiting for something explosive, that twist that makes you sit up and take notice to occur. You are wondering is this it? Will anything ever happen? Then all of a sudden with a few simple words or one crucial chapter everything is turned on its head and you think wow this is excellent and really all the chapters that had gone before it were so worth it. They were essential to the plot. The Secrets Between Us was my first read of 2018 and I flew through it in a couple of hours so compulsive did the tell unfolding before my eyes become.

The story moves back and forth between Ceci Corvin living high up in the French mountains near to the Italian border in 1943. The war is at its height and the little village of Saint Antoine may seem like a refuge for some but outside forces make their mark ever known. In April of 1993 Annie Picot works in a library. She lives in London but is now in Cheshire working on a job cataloguing government documents so that they are all online. This is top secret work and Annie is at the lowest levels of the operation. Will her personal story and that of the distance between her mother and grandmother make her do something which could threaten her job? I loved how the story effortlessly moved back and forth over the 50 year time period. The chapters from Annie's viewpoint were short and to the point the further we moved into the story as if the author knew the reader wanted to get back to 1943 to learn more about an incredible love story at a time of such cruelty, hardship and horror. Not that I didn't enjoy the sections from 1993, I did but the story of Ceci held my interest ever so slightly more. But Annie's story was brilliant too as it brought connections and secrets to the fore and the more she uncovered and learned about a time many wanted forgotten the more I was keen to see how all the strands of the story may eventually come together.

Laura Madeleine's talents lie in her descriptive abilities. She has such a way with words that I could clearly picture the narrow cobbled streets of Saint Antoine with its array of houses and some small shops. It seemed like another worldly place where the residents try to put the ravages of war to the back of their mind believing that they could be safe and cocooned. The village surrounded by mountains appeared as if cut off from the rest of the world bar the ratting bus that came every so often if one had business to deal with in Nice. What is also clear is that food and in this case the bakery plays an important role in all of the authors books. Despite the rationing and food shortages Ceci and her family run the local bakery as best they can. The descriptions of the process of bread making, rising early in the morning to bake everything to supply the town even though they had such limited resources were wonderful and throughout the book food continued to play a vital role. Bread, salt, life and love are all elements very important to Ceci. I sensed Ceci had led a good life before the outbreak of war but now everything has changed. A state of constant alert is one in which she and her family have become very accustomed to. It has become the norm but this shouldn't be the case. Ceci's brother Leon has vanished and the family wonder has he become involved with the milice? But the arrival of Jewish refugees is the turning point at which Ceci's life begins to change once again.

With the influx of new refugees all the feelings Ceci experiences of fear, uncertainty, secrets and danger only grow more prominent. I had never heard of Jews being accommodated in small towns like this during the war but it became apparent this was during the Italian occupation of France and before the fall of Mussolini and then the Germans took over. I am glad such detail has been brought to light in a historical fiction book. The whole topic of men, women and children being forced to leave everything they had ever known was dealt with such sensitivity and tact. Up until this point and for quite some more of the book I felt there wasn't much happening, in fact there seemed to be repetition of days but it is only as the I neared the last quarter I understood things had been bubbling away beneath the surface unbeknownst to the reader.

Ceci's family take in a husband and wife – Daniel and Myriam Reiss. They are given the apartment at the top of the bakery. I understood the pair must have seen such trauma and endured horrors beyond imagination but they came across as being very odd and even more secretive than they necessarily needed to be. The were always very watchful and although Ceci tried to crack the shell they had built around them her intentions were hard to achieve. A tentative friendship is formed with Myriam but it all seemed very strange to me. Myriam was very much an enigma throughout the book. She was mysterious and elusive and almost cast a spell over Ceci, so much so that she forgot what her role was in the family and did things that would threaten her life even more. When certain things became apparent to the reader I thought bravo for including such a storyline as undoubtedly such things didn't just starting happen in the last 25/30 years and it added an even further realistic, human element to the overall storyline. Ceci turned out to be an incredible young woman, way beyond her time, but the question that remains in the present -why did she leave Saint Antoine so abruptly never to return even when it was safe to do so?

Ceci's story in 1943 as far stronger than that of Annie in 1993. Annie was anti social and didn't know how to talk to and engage with people. So what she does in order to discover what made her mother and grandmother not talk or even contact each other for so many years, seems to go against the initial character of Annie that we are presented with. Then Annie seemed to buck up and want to take matters into her own hands, she wants and needs answers before it is too late. For someone at first portrayed as meek and sub-servant, one who would obey any given order, Annie certainly turned things round once she had made the decision to search for her grandmother. I enjoyed reading of Annie trying to find her grandmother and it really did help connect the two storylines. We saw characters transform and bit by bit the truth began to emerge, little details began to make sense and my opinions rapidly changed. As we drew closer to the end the tension levels rose and rose and that moment came that made me realise, yes this was an outstanding book, so cleverly done. I couldn't believe the secrets and connections that were emerging. I was trying to piece and connect everything together. I thought the ending was just perfect and so apt considering all that had gone before. I finished this book with a sigh of contentment and knew it would be a difficult story to get out of head.

The Secrets Between Us definitely leaves you with a book hangover as you contemplate what to read next and wonder can anything leave up to such a stunning read. It was an incredible story and certainly one for the keeper shelf.

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