Thursday, 13 February 2020

Emma's Review: The Forgotten Girls by Lizzie Page

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

London, 1943. German bombs rain down on London, but Elaine Parker knows her job transcribing letters from far-away prisoners of war is more important than her own safety. As she pores over each tearful letter from a soldier to his family far away, she’s not only making sure the notes reach their destinations, but also looking for secret messages hidden between the lines to help the allies win the war.

At home, Elaine’s life isn’t so simple. What the other clerical girls don’t know is that Elaine’s family isn’t respectable, and with her parents long dead, it’s up to Elaine to make ends meet. But with one brother increasingly in trouble with the law, and the other suffering a violent breakdown, it doesn’t leave Elaine much time to consider her own future hopes and dreams.

And then Elaine meets dark-haired and passionate Bobby – a wartime photographer on the dangerous front line – and her world shifts. The uncertainties of war feel more personal than ever. Will Elaine be forced to choose between her difficult family and her growing passion for Bobby? And how do you let yourself love someone with your whole heart when each moment could be their last?

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Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The Forgotten Girls to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

The Forgotten Girls is the fourth book from Lizzie Page. It's told in the form of a dual narrative blending historical fact with fiction and once again has a woman as the central character. I love that the author always places women at the forefront of her novels and gives them a voice when at the time the books are set they may not necessarily have had one given the constraints of society. Elaine Parker, is not a fictional character and the author has done extensive research on her life. I had never heard of her before, nor of the war photographer Robert Kappa with whom she falls deeply in love with, but I feel I have been given a very good insight into a short period in their lives which deeply affected both of them for many years after. Writing about lesser known women behind the scenes gives the author to some extent free rein to bring these characters to life and Elaine's interesting and tumultuous life was compelling although I think she did herself a disservice in that she didn't always put herself first when I felt she ought to.

We follow Elaine in 1943 and for several years after but also in 2016 we come to know Jenny. This is the first time that the author has moved between the past and the present and to be honest I found Elaine's story much more engrossing. I can understand why Jenny and her family featured in attempts to establish legacies and connections and when that pivotal moment arrived I did go, oh is this the path we are venturing down and my interest was definitely peeked. But apart from that I thought if Jenny's aspect of the overall story was omitted the book as a whole would have worked perfectly well. Jenny was a difficult character to warm to and she felt very disjointed and disconnected from her family as they gather at her brother's villa in Spain for a family holiday. Her mother Shirley and Aunt Barbara are there too and a documentary maker arrives with some startling news. A tattered family photograph is the stimulus for exploration, discovery and discussion and soon truths and secrets begin to spill forth but will what is revealed please or dissatisfy those who hear what has to be said.

Jenny was very much struggling in her personal life following her separation from her husband Paul. She longs for a reunion and in my mind didn't seem that strong that she couldn't face facts that she was married to a man who had a wandering eye and didn't show women the respect and compassion they deserve. Combined with this fact her relationship with Shirley seemed as if it had a huge gap between them and really Jenny was in a complete state of worry and there was no way she was relaxing on this holiday. There were much more chapters focusing on Elaine and I preferred this and there were even times when we jumped back to Jenny and her family I had completely forgotten that they featured in the book because honestly I was more absorbed in Elaine and her experiences of love, sacrifice and family relationships and bonds.

Elaine worked as a clerical officer for the government transcribing letters from prisoners living in camps where such cruelty was common place. Elaine and her colleagues search for hidden clues or signs that might provide information for the government to help win the war. Elaine had been courting Justin for a year and now he is away fighting. She feels their relationship has now more or less become non-existent and that she as a person has changed and is beginning to move on. These changes gather apace and Elaine finds herself a very different woman from when the war started. This all comes about when she meets the famous war photographer Robert Kappa whom she soon calls Bobby - (this does become annoying in that one sentence he is referred to as Robert Kappa and then the next Bobby and so on). A game of cat and mouse all based around seduction ensues and the reader can see that Elaine is falling for him hard and fast but she has her own secrets to keep. She was entranced by this man who was known for having a woman in every port but there is an aura about him combined with his marvellous photography skills that Elaine can't shake and she becomes deeply embroiled with him. He is everything that has been missing and evading her in her life thus far.

Elaine's greatest fear is to be parted from her loved ones and you can understand that given she became the sole carer for her two brothers. For her family always comes first, and I do understand the importance of this, but I thought she pushed aside her own personal wants, needs and desires far too quickly because she was always thinking of others. Her brother Clive was an old rogue always doing a bit of wheeling and dealing. He did have a caring nature beneath it all but I didn't like the way he rather left things to Elaine rather than step up and be the man of the house. Younger brother Alan was suffering greatly, and given the stigma and shame around his situation at the time where as now there is a lot more understanding, compassion and a willingness to help, the reader has to step back and carefully analyse and consider what they think of Elaine's overall actions.

Elaine is a divisive character in that you wish she would follow her heart and be more honest with herself. Is she to be applauded for the sacrifices she makes or will readers think oh Elaine what have you done? You cannot doubt the love that Elaine felt for Robert, it was like a magic reeling her in, something brand new and the thing she was missing all her life. But at times I thought it wasn't always reciprocated and that maybe she was falling into some sort of trap and this could never end well. Elaine's paranoia and insecurities I felt were entirely justified. As for Robert's sidekick Marty, his executive fixer at Life Corp publishers, he seemed to control Robert's life and it was like he had a firm grip on him and as if he was slightly obsessed and wanted to control every aspect of his life. The question persists throughout the book just what is the connection between Elaine and the family photograph discovered in the present?

The cover and synopsis of The Forgotten Girls implies you are getting a gripping and heartbreaking historical fiction novel based around World War Two but to be honest its very different from what I had been expecting. I didn't think it would be such a slow burner as it did take me quite some time to get into it but the last quarter or so of the book really did capture my attention and I was rooting for Elaine and wondering would she stand true to her selfless actions and be able to face the repercussions? The Forgotten Girls is a good story if you are looking for something that little bit different from your usual historical fiction.

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