Reviewed by Emma Crowley
On holiday with friends, young historian Briony Andrews becomes fascinated with a wartime story of a ruined villa in the hills behind Naples. There is a family connection: her grandfather had been a British soldier during the Italian campaign of 1943 in that very area. Handed a bundle of letters that were found after the war, Briony sets off to trace the fate of their sender, Sarah Bailey.
In 1939, Sarah returns with her mother and sister from India, in mourning, to take up residence in the Norfolk village of Westbury. There she forms a firm friendship with Paul Hartmann, a young German who has found sanctuary in the local manor house, Westbury Hall. With the outbreak of war, conflicts of loyalty in Westbury deepen.
When, 70 years later, Briony begins to uncover Sarah and Paul’s story, she encounters resentments and secrets still tightly guarded. What happened long ago in the villa in the shadow of Vesuvius, she suspects, still has the power to give terrible pain …
Many thanks to Simon and Schuster for my copy of Last Letter Home to review via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
I've been a big fan of Rachel Hore's work ever since I stumbled across her first book The Dream House in my local library many years ago, since then I have read and loved everything she has written. She has a powerful way of blending the past with the present and I love how historical fiction but some elements of fact are present always have such an intriguing dominating role to play in the overall plot and themes of the story. In Last Letter Home, Rachel has once again written a story that within a few pages will have you lost in the world of the characters as someone in the present attempts to uncover mysteries from the past.
This character being Briony Wood, a historian who lecturers at a university but also engages in research. Briony has written a book about the ATS, The Women's Infantry Service, during World War Two. She appears on a TV programme to promote her book but this leads to disaster. Both real life and online trolling ensue and suffice to say Briony is not in a very good place when we are first introduced to her. She feels unstable as if her life is falling apart with no way for her to climb out of the black hole that has been created for her. She feels she has already struggled all her life and now with this set back her confidence and self belief has taken such a huge knock. Family issues that have swept under the carpet also play a part in Briony's state of mind. Talking to a councillor does help some what but what she really needs is something to take her mind off everything, something she can get her teeth stuck into to keep the demons at bay.
Several months later Briony is on holiday in Tuana, Italy with her best friend Aruna and Aruna's boyfriend Luke. Briony feels like a spare part but maybe the peace and relaxation is what she needs to overcome her recent traumas. As she explorers on her own she stumbles across an abandoned villa where it has been left to return to the wilderness. Her interest is sparked as her grandfather was stationed there during WW2. When Mariella the maid of the villa where they are all staying gives Briony a projector with film reels alongside a bundle of letters so sets in motion a journey of discovery. One of the men in the film is recognisable to her. That side of the family she believed to have been lost to her forever so when she sees a tentative connection surely it would be foolish not to investigate further? This will be an incredible journey for her, one in which Briony discovers so much about herself but also her past family history.
I sensed Briony needed this quest/challenge partly because history was her passion but also it was a chance to satisfy some unresolved family issues and questions. She needed this task to keep her on the straight and narrow to put the feelings of discomfort around the trolling at bay. So many questions draw her even further back in time. As she begins to read through the letters written by Sarah to a Paul Hartmann, the reader is taken back to the war years and a beautiful love story unfolds. It's not without its difficulties or constraints but it surely was fascinating to read of Sarah and Paul's story.
From then on each chapter focused on Briony in the present as she attempts to untangle the past, and Sarah who resides in Norfolk after returning from India with her mother and sister following the death of her father. Sarah lives in Flint Cottage on the Westbury estate, her family have to acclimatise to being back in England after such a traumatic event befell them. The walled garden of the estate speaks to her, she wants to indulge her passion for nature and flowers and cultivate a garden which will hold special memories for her. It will also take her mind off the absence of her father and how her mother and sister are also dealing with the situation. The descriptions of the estate and the new life Sarah and her family are experiencing were so vivid and quickly became well established in my mind. I felt Sarah was more resourceful and somewhat more with it than her family. She was a woman ahead of her time who would never let prejudice stand in her way especially as the outbreak of war was not so very far away. Forbidden love as outlined by the circumstances of the time was not something that she wanted as an obstacle to her happiness. I warmed to Sarah instantly and the use of the letters throughout the book as Briony read them in the present day really helped bring about connections and understanding between the past and the present.
Paul Hartmann who is gardener at the estate shares a kindred soul with Sarah, both are restless but at the same time feel a sense of duty to one's family. Paul's personal background and situation do have a more significant bearing on the storyline once war was declared on Hitler. Paul seemed so caring, loving and generous as he bonded with Sarah as they worked in the garden. But later, scenes that followed as his circumstances drastically changed were at times hard to read for I felt he should not have had to endure such a thing. As Sarah is afforded new opportunities the guilt begins to creep in that her mother and sister both of whom are very vulnerable will not manage of she is not present. In fact Diane, Sarah's sister, very much surprised me with what unfolded with regards to her but I had sensed she was not always fully present and would be prone to going off the rails if given the chance.
I enjoyed reading of how Sarah and her family coped with the war whilst at the same time being given an insight into Paul and also Ivor who was the son of the estate manager. Some of the scenes on foreign soil were incredibly emotive and only served to reinforce for me just how far reaching and devastating the war was. The fact, thankfully I never experienced such sights or experienced such hardship is one I am grateful for but none the less I think it is testament to the brilliant writing of Rachel Hore that I felt very much taken back to a time and place where life was never easy for those left at home and even more challenging for those men away fighting for their country.
Both strands of the story, Briony in the present and Sarah were equally as strong and as riveting as the other. Sometimes in a dual timeline book I find myself racing through one time period to get back to another but here I found myself very interested in what was ongoing at all times. Briony's story really ramped up a notch when she finds herself staying at a cottage on the Westbury estate so she can continue to work in solitude on her book. For her this was meant to be. There was a story lying there waiting to be told, for connections and truths to emerge and be confirmed and she was in the right place and at the correct time to do so. I felt Briony very much needed this affirmation to move on and find peace, love and acceptance in her life. She wouldn't rest until she had reached the bottom of a mystery that she never knew existed until she discovered that abandoned villa. It was almost like the villa had been calling her.
The overwhelming sense of secrets and things unspoken pervaded throughout the story. Yet it didn't feel like the book was all doom and gloom or that a sense of suffocation dominated. Bravery, loss and endurance are some of the emotions that come to mind when reading of Sarah's story and it made me realise what an incredible woman she truly was. The last quarter of the book given a slight lull in the mid section really brought things together. With each turn of the page more and more revelations came to the fore and at several points I was left gasping out loud as I thought god I should have seen that coming or oh now that makes sense. Simply Last Letter Home is another triumph from Rachel Hore and it has reminded me just why I love historical fiction so much. This is definitely one for the keeper shelf.
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