Monday, 8 June 2020

Emma's Review: Daughters of Cornwall by Fern Britton

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

The Great War is over, and Clara Carter has boarded a train bound for Cornwall – to meet a family that would once have been hers. But they must never discover her secret…

Hannah has always been curious about her mother’s mysterious past, but the outbreak of the Second World War casts everything in a new light. As the bombs begin to fall, Hannah and her brothers are determined to do their bit for the war effort – whatever the cost.

Caroline has long been the keeper of her family’s secrets. But now, with her own daughter needing her more than ever, it’s time to tell the truth – to show Natalie that she comes from a long line of women who have weathered the storms of life, as hardy and proud as the rugged Cornish coastline…

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Many thanks to Harper Collins UK via NetGalley for my copy of Daughters of Cornwall to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

It’s been a really long time since I have read a book by Fern Britton but her new book Daughters of Cornwall caught my eye for two reasons. I love Cornwall as a setting as it evokes such wonderful imagery that really takes you away from your normal everyday life and secondly this seemed different from what the author has written before in that there was a strong historical element with a dual timeline. I love historical fiction so I was keen to see how this book would develop. The book is split into three parts as we follow three generations of women from the same family. Part one focuses on WW1, part two on WW2 and part three has a mixture of WW2 and the present day. This was quite ambitious as most historical fiction authors choose to set their stories during one war or the author and this made me think had the author spread herself to thin?

As I worked my way through the book it was clear there had been lots of extensive research undertaken and you do really get a good feeling for what life was like for people at whichever point in time you were reading about. I did find part one quite heavy going as the tone of the book was established and the oppressive feeling of uncertainty, pain and anguish really came through. I couldn’t see in what way the plot was going to venture but it’s when I reached part two and a new voice took over that I felt it became easier to read and it felt lighter and not as heavy to get through.

The prologue introduces us to Caroline who lives in Callyzion in Cornwall. She comes from a long line of women who have toughened themselves on the anvil of life due to broken marriages, hearts and lives and who all share a striking connection apart from that of being related. Caroline receives a trunk sent to her from the far east, Penang, Malaya to be specific, and when she opens it, it sets in motion a chain of remembrance and of delving back into the past to help her to understand the contents of the trunk and to help her to come a more appreciative understanding of her own life and her mother’s. Caroline reads a diary which will go on to explain a lot to her and will eventually help her make sense of things and alleviate some of the guilt she feels. The story then moves back to 1918 and we read about Clara but we do get snippets from Caroline dotted throughout the remainder of the book as a means of bridging the past with the present.

In December 1918, the war has been over for a month and Clara Carter is travelling to Cornwall to visit people she has never met before. Her life has always been full of secrets and everything she has said is not the truth. We slowly come to see that she came from nothing and made something of herself but in doing so she had to lie about her origins. She must be careful not to let slip anything that is best kept secret or all her work to get where she is today will be undone. Clara journeys to meet the family of her fiancé Bertie. She met him on one of those memorable nights during the war where work was over for the day and women and soldiers went out to clubs and for meals. From the moment she laid eyes on him and the same could be said for Bertie they were a match made in heaven and had only eyes for each other. Many stolen moments and days were spent together before Bertie was posted to France.

But the realities of life came knocking at her door but before a proper life could be made for the pair of them, Bertie was so cruelly snatched away but Clara knows he was doing his bit for his country and died in an honourable way. As Clara arrives in Cornwall knowing that Bertie never got round to telling his family about her there is a sense of wariness about her and also it felt like she was hiding something. Clara for me wasn’t the most likeable of characters she did show courage and resilience but at the same time she did lie about something very important and I thought she used people too. No doubt the author portrayed very well the love between the pair. There were also chapters told from Bertie’s viewpoint as he battled in the trenches full of mud and danger lurking around every corner, some of the descriptions were horrific and hard to read.

As mentioned above I felt this section of the book was hard going and I did feel like I was plodding through it but when part two began I much preferred reading about Hannah in Cornwall beginning in 1938. Yes there was a significant jump in terms of years between parts one and two and it was initially quite disconcerting to read of a different character and become familiar with them. I was a bit annoyed that we weren’t going to hear Clara’s viewpoint as I thought part one was building up to this. Instead her daughter Hannah takes over but it actually worked even better. She was a fresh new voice and I found myself turning the pages an awful lot more quicker. She is the next generation as mentioned in the title to tell her story and you wonder will history repeat itself? I did enjoy trying to fill in the missing years between sections and I found myself reading much more into things. Hannah and her brother Edward live in the vicarage with their grandparents Hugh and Amy Bolitho, their parents Clara and Ernest are away in Malaya running a rubber plantation. Hannah was a total contrast to Clara as in she was younger when we were reading about her and there were times when I laughed out loud at some of the writing and what herself and Edward say. It felt very conversational in contrast to part one was much darker and at times it felt like facts were just being stated. We got a very good glimpse into Hannah’s life but when war is declared in 1939 things change for the family.

Clara returns home in 1936 and begins to live with the family but I could see where the story was going and despite Hannah and Edward doing their bit for the war, and Clara making a good life for herself in Cornwall, it all just felt a bit too routine and that the chapters were just going through the motions recounting life during the war. I could piece things together far too easily and this big mystery waiting to be uncovered just didn’t materialise. I wanted to be on the edge of my seat guessing what was going to happen next and to come across some twists and turns but unfortunately this just didn’t happen and as I was at the 98% mark there was still so much left unsaid I was thinking to myself how could this be wrapped up with so little remaining in the book? This in turn left to a very rushed ending that left me needing more.

Daughters of Cornwall was a mixed bag for me I much preferred Hannah’s story but the author did show how the affects of war do have long term repercussions and she highlighted how the three generations of women all felt quite apart and distant even though they didn’t realise they shared one thing in common which had it been revealed would have alleviated a lot of guilt. The author has shown lots of promise in this genre. It’s a decent family saga but perhaps not my most memorable of reads this year as the lack of mystery just wasn’t there for me. If you have liked Fern’s previous books you will enjoy this one and I think I would love to see if she continued to write in this genre in what direction and to what point in time she would go to next.

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