Monday, 9 April 2018

Emma's Review: Villa of Secrets by Patricia Wilson

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

Rebecca Neumanner's marriage is on the brink of collapse, as her desire to be a mother becomes an obsession. Then she receives news from her estranged family in Rhodes. 

Called back to the beautiful Greek island of her birth, she realises how little she knows of the grandmother she has eluded for over a decade. Bubba has never spoken of the Nazi occupation during her youth, but there have always been whispers. What desperate measures did she take that terrible day in 1944 when her family was ripped apart? Can the rumour she had blood on her own hands really be true? But Bubba intends to take her secrets to the grave. 

However, as Rebecca arrives on Rhodes, bringing the promise of new life, this broken family must come together. The time has come to tell the truth about the darkest of days... 

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Many thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for my copy of Villa of Secrets to review via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

Given that Island of Secrets, the incredible d├ębut novel from Patricia Wilson, was one of my favourite books of 2017, to say I was eager for the publication of Villa of Secrets would be a massive understatement. Writing in the historical fiction genre, Patricia, seamlessly blends the past with the present helping her characters to bring long held secrets to the fore and in doing so creates a story that is increasingly difficult to put down. Admittedly I did read this book in two halves, I was enjoying the story but then life and other commitments got in the way and I am afraid this book was left to one side for several weeks. Up until the point at which I stopped I did think this was a good story but I was still waiting for that moment that I experienced while reading book one, that pivotal point that sets this book apart from anything I have recently read, that makes me want to shout about it from the rooftops.

I was slightly worried that I hadn't got that vibe yet so I did return to finish Villa of Secrets with some slight trepidation. I needn't have had any as once again the author really ramped up the pace in what I am calling part two even though the book was not divided into sections. Once I picked the book up for the second time it wasn't left out off my hands until I had finished it. I think the time I took away from the book only enhanced my enjoyment once I got stuck back into Dora and her granddaughter's lives. There were plenty of twists and turns, surprises and heartache and one major twist I didn't see coming. In fact said twist left me frustrated as it left me with one big question on my lips which I would love to know the author's viewpoint on and why she left things the way she did?

The setting this time for Villa of Secrets is the island of Rhodes, in the present day, and during World War Two under Italian and then German occupation. Throughout the story there is fantastic, glorious imagery of the island and also much detail regarding the history and how actions of people in the past play an important role on those living in the present. It felt like I was almost there on the island especially during the wars years as Dora takes on a vital, dangerous and courageous role. The island became her workplace of sorts and hiding in an old shepherds hut on the mountain was the centre from which so much happened in her life. In the present day Naomi is caring for her grandmother Bubba, it soon becomes apparent as Naomi reads through her grandmother's diaries that Bubba was Dora.

Bubba although recovering slowly from a stroke is still as sharp as ever. Yet the memories and pain of the past still deeply affect her today. Her experiences during the war and what she witnessed and endured have always had a forbearing on the way she reacts to people, particularly to Fritz, the husband of her granddaughter Rebecca now living in London. Rebecca has not seen or spoken to her family in many years. Harsh words were said which were aimed to hurt and are very difficult to retract. But times are changing and as a court case is about to be heard in relation to property stolen from people during the war, maybe now is the time for the family to reunite. A time to put the past to rest and to bed for once and for all but to do this we must go back and read Bubba's story through her diaries, to allow both Rebecca and Naomi to make sense of everything.

As we are taken back to July 1944, we are told Bubba's story in her own words. At all times she had a diary and would write in it, to keep memories fresh be they good or bad. Dora is like any other girl living in Paradissi village, well she should be except for the war that has changed all of her family and friends lives forever. When she couldn't think that things would get any worse her family are brutally torn apart, all because of their religion and heritage. Suffice to say Dora and her sister Evangelisa are the only ones left on the island. One through fate and Dora through sheer courage and bravery putting herself in the utmost of danger.

From this point on the innocence of youth is forever gone for Dora and she grew up very very quickly. I couldn't imagine the youth of today taking on such a challenge. For a quest is what it was, a challenge to be reunited with her family and relatives, Dora would not rest until they were together again. She wanted to play her part in winning the war, no matter how big or small that role was to be. In doing so she encounters many things which were shocking but definitely needed to be included in the story to show just how courageous this girl was in the face of so much danger and adversity.

Dora was taken on a journey, one which she would not have planned for herself but, in trying to stop the Germans exerting further control and in a bid to save the people she loves so dearly, Dora will make many sacrifices. To say much more regarding Dora's experiences during the war would take away from the story. Patricia Wilson did such an amazing job of bringing that time to life and I felt every bit of the fear, pain, anger, nervousness and at times passion that Dora goes through. She is helped by people who can see the strong traits she possesses. Of course there has to be an element of romance and to say the least it was very bittersweet and heartbreaking, it felt so real, so passionate and the ultimate surprise that tied everything together made me go ah that was lovely but god I wanted things to work out differently.

In the present day Bubba is very much moulded by the secrets of the past she holds within herself but still that feisty, strong nature is still evident. She has been through an awful lot in her life, yes during the war but also in the years that followed it. At all times she was selfless and put others needs very much before her own. Taking in and raising her granddaughters after tragedy struck was just one example of such an act. I think the strand of the story set during the war years slightly edged out the present day timeline for me but I did enjoy how one was necessary to bring the other full circle in an attempt to bring about resolution and a deeper understanding on all sides.

Naomi was so tender and caring towards Bubba whilst at the same time balancing many things in her life. I felt she struggled with her husband working away and at times felt under pressure. Her sister Rebecca is conspicuous in her absence but has Bubba something up her sleeve that will make Rebecca return to the island? I understood Naomi was there as a support and anchor for Bubba but I did think she didn't have as vital a role to play as other characters. I did like her but she wasn't always at the forefront of my thinking when it came to slotting pieces of the puzzle together or understanding subtle hints dropped throughout the story. Many of which I missed considering I never saw the biggest surprise of all coming from a mile away.

Rebecca in London is tormented by the fact her struggles to have a child are only ever increasing. She loves Fritz and that love is reciprocated but it is under immense strain and pressure. When strange parcels start arriving in the post, is this just another thing to put more worry on Rebecca or will she give in to the calling card in the packages? Rebecca needed time away from her situation and to reconnect with her family, to push the water under the bridge and accept forgiveness. To understand how the actions of one warrior in the past led the family to the point they are at today. Can resolution be found for all involved? Will everyone change their opinions once the truth finally emerges? Will the property lost to the family be returned to them?

So many questions, so many twists and turns and things you would never have thought possible. All these combine to make for another excellent read from Patricia Wilson, she has proven what writing talent she has. She is no one hit wonder as the 'difficult' second book didn't come across as being challenging more so as if it was an exciting, thrilling writing journey, yes tinged with bitterness and sadness for what happened to the people of Rhodes and the neighbouring islands during the war but still the author has turned the spotlight on a time in history that many need to read and understand about. Villa of Secrets had the perfect blend of fiction with historical fact and the story was told with tact and sensitivity. Definitely a highly recommended read, now when is Patricia's next book out?

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