Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Canada, present day
When Martha’s beloved father dies, he leaves her two things: a mysterious stash of letters to an English woman called ‘Catkins’ and directions to a beach hut in the English seaside town of Wells-Next-The-Sea. Martha is at a painful crossroads in her own life, and seizes this chance for a trip to England – to discover more about her family’s past, and the identity of her father’s secret correspondent.
Sylvia’s husband Howard has gone off to war, and she is struggling to raise her two children alone. Her only solace is her beach hut in Wells, and her friendship with Connie, a woman she meets on the beach. The two women form a bond that will last a lifetime, and Sylvia tells Connie something that no-one else knows: about a secret lover… and a child.
But the tragedy of war brings heartbreaking choices. And a promise made between the two women will echo down the years, and could change everything for Martha…
Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The Lost Letters to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
Sarah Mitchell's début novel The Lost Letters has to have one of the most gorgeous covers that I have seen this year, the letters and the beach hut in the background form pivotal parts to the story but all does not become clear until the very end. I'll be straight up and say that I did find this book difficult to get into as the beginning is very slow and you question where the book is going as the story does wander off on several tangents. You are attempting to connect all these strands but it is too early to do so. I have seen a few other people mention this so I know I wasn't the only reader that felt this was the case but once I reached the halfway point the story took a turn and it became a very good read. I was glad I had stuck with it.
So even though the first half is slow, the pay off is more than worth it as all that setting up and development of the story begins to come to fruition. The sense of mystery and uncovering of the past begins to come through and as Martha starts to become excited and engaged in the task she was sent to Norfolk to do the readers excitement grows too. Things begin to make a lot more sense and I desperately hoped as with most historical fiction dual timeline books that there would be a big reveal or twist that would leave the reader gasping in shock. A sentence or two which would change my opinions of characters and my outlook of the entire book. Thankfully there was and that's what made me enjoy the book more so for the second half rather than the opening.
Martha Rodwell is travelling from her home in Canada to England. She is hoping to kill two birds with one stone – perhaps a visit to her daughter who is studying in London, although there are tensions in their relationship, but also to solve the mystery that has recently come to light with the death of Lewis, her father. Lewis had been writing his memoirs when he passed away and there is still a section to be written, the first twenty years of his life are missing. Before he died he was planning on spending a month in a coastal town in Norfolk, he had not been back to the country of his birth for over seventy years. So what drew him back now?
Martha would readily admit that she is not the most adventurous of people but having been divorced from husband Clem for several years and knowing he has moved on, she knows now is the time she needs to get out there for herself and live a little or she will have too many regrets. As much as this book was about finding the answers to the mystery surrounding a bunch of letters left behind by Lewis addressed to a Catkins, this was Martha's journey too. She took brave steps in taking on the task but would the steps be beneficial and she will see a whole new side to life or will it just cause more harm in her relationship with Janey? Will she find a happy ever after she never relaised she too was searching for?
Once Martha arrived in England and settled into the hotel where she was staying and explored the surrounding area not much really happened. Seeking the answers, following the trail, making connections and that fervour and determination that comes with reconciling the past with the present didn't come until much later in the book. I felt it took too long for Martha to get going as a character and become the lead in the quest until events forced her to. But when the story picked up pace, I felt that was where she came into her own and we saw a different side to her character. She wasn't as meek and timid and as the wool fell from her eyes and some startling revelations began to make themselves apparent my excitement grew as to what the big family secret could have been. It was shocking and surprising but showed what families went through during the war. What sacrifices they made for those they loved. It showed how friendships can endure for so long and the bonds that tie these friendships together in the first place are there for a reason. To see people through thick and thin.
I think I preferred the chapters of the book as told from the viewpoint of Sylvia. I have always had a keen interest in the past and I do think the author did a very good job of recreating the lives of people during World War Two. Sylvia did not have the best of relationships with her husband Howard and in some way she is glad that he is away fighting because she can just breathe and be herself. No more fear of doing the wrong thing or of simmering tensions. It seemed she was trapped in a relationship that she did not want to be in. She counts herself lucky that she has two children that she can love and cherish - Lewis and Esther. It's when she's staying with her parents in Norfolk, and discovers an Aunt left her a beach hut, that she meets Connie and her brother Charlie. They are in Norfolk on holiday but as Sylvia does something which Connie will never forget and will always be thankfully for, a friendship is formed that will never be broken and will see them through the most testing of times. I enjoyed getting to delve deeper into Sylvia's character and as the war progressed little titbits were dropped in every now and again that give teasers as to what was going on.
The reader had to read an awful lot between the lines as to what everything was building up to and to be honest I hadn't a clue as to what direction it was going in but as previously mentioned it did built up to a satisfying conclusion demonstrating the power of love combined with pain, sacrifice and above all else hope. Connie seemed to disappear for a lot of Sylvia's section of the book and then a brief mention would occur. I questioned why she was brought into the story at all as there had been quite a bit of attention devoted to their meeting on the beach? But I suppose their lives during the war drew them in different directions and a letter every now and then would have sufficed as communication.
The Lost Letters is a promising start from Sarah Mitchell. I sense there is even greater things to come from her in the future. Maybe having Martha searching earlier, delving back into the past from the beginning rather than detailing her days in Norfolk before she finally got a spurt under would have been more benficial. The urgency of finding the answers didn't appear until the second half and if this feeling had been present earlier on I think I would have been gripped the entire way through. The dominant questions that pervaded this story was – who is Catkins? What connection had she to Lewis? Why was he returning to England after so many years away? I think I wanted Catkins to turn out to be a certain person almost like a cliché that I have read in similar novels so it was refreshing that the author put a different slant on things. There was a surprising ending but it did make sense of all that had been explored in the story. The Lost Letters although not the strongest book I have read this year is certainly worth a read.