Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Emma's Review: The Runaway Sisters by Ann Bennett

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

Devon, 1940: When fifteen-year-old Daisy is evacuated from her home in London, she knows she must look after her younger sister Peggy. She is the only one who can reassure Peggy that life will go back to normal, holding her close and reading to her from their one battered children’s book.

But when the sisters are taken into the countryside, Daisy quickly realises that not everyone at home is on the right side of the war. Forced to work in fields alongside orphan children, she finds herself drawn to a young boy called John, who has tried and failed to escape many times before. He protects the other children, and his bravery inspires Daisy.

Then Peggy gets sick and Daisy knows that, to save her life, they must run away. But now Peggy is not the only one Daisy is desperate to protect. As the sounds of German engines grow louder above her, Daisy is faced with an impossible choice: escape with just her sister, or risk her life to save others?

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

The Runaway Sisters is the second book that I have read by Ann Bennett this year who up until recently was a new author for me. I have to say what a brilliant discovery this author has been as I have thoroughly enjoyed both of the books that I have read. They are great family sagas with brilliant storylines that are extremely well researched, plotted and developed from beginning to end. The characters are varied and in The Runaway Sisters there was action from start to finish with a whole range of topics being dealt with. Not once was there a wasted scene or word, everything was there to keep the story moving forward at a great pace so much so that I was constantly on the edge of my seat to discover what would next befall the characters.

The transitions between past and present were absolutely seamless with not a flaw to be found during these changeovers. The main connection between the past and the present was apparent from the opening chapter yet the real crux of the matter was slowly drip fed through to the reader with subtle hints being dropped every so often should you pick up on them but just enough so the reader could enjoy trying to piece things together for themselves. This book was a quick read, but in a good way because I was reading it so fast as I was so enthralled at the story unfolding, and it was evident that the short time it took me to read it that this story was just excellent.

I loved how right from chapter one we were straight into the action with no messing around and filling in of backstory or long winded introductions. Anything we needed to know we found out as and when it happened apart from a few things that were kept secret until the climax of the book which was necessary as revealing too much too soon would have ruined the book. Everything developed at a superb pace that left me rapidly turning the pages. It also helped that the chapters weren’t overly long or detailed and this just made me want to keep reading on even more.

The first character we meet is Helen as she travels to Black Moor Hall, on the outskirts of Dartmoor in Devon. Alongside her sister Laura, who has a high powered job in London, the house is being sorted and cleared out. Their mother Daisy, who I initially thought had died, is now in a care home having suffered a stroke. Things must be sold to pay for her continued care. The sisters haven’t had the best of relationships and Helen has always felt a distance from her mother. They were never allowed to venture to the outskirts of the property despite all the intrigue that lurked there and this has forever eaten away at Helen. Why did her mother go there every day yet Helen and her sister could not? Now that her mother is not able to communicate as well as she once did and a new stage is becoming apparent in their family life, Helen wonders will things change? She has found her place in life to be difficult and unknown. She has had many broken relationships and never followed her dream to study art. She works in her friends antique shop but wonders whether there is more out there awaiting her?

Whilst clearing out a room in the hall Helen and Laura discover some letters yellowed with age from Daisy to what soon becomes apparent is her mother. They were written when Daisy was evacuated from London. But why is a girl name Peggy mentioned? Daisy never mentioned she had a sister and why was there a name change surrounding Daisy? Just a few questions that arise alongside so many more and so Helen sets out to find out the answers and along the way discovers some secrets and truths she could never have thought possible in relation to her mother. I really enjoyed Helen’s aspect of the story as it was interspersed perfectly with that of Daisy’s. When things got very tense and traumatic in the past the author changed direction and brought us back to the present and it gave the reader that few minutes just to catch their breath and absorb what they had just read whilst at the same time things were advancing in the present as Helen edged closer to the truth. In doing so she was hoping to resolve the issues within her family.

Daisy and Helen were evacuated to Plymouth in 1940. They have a family to stay with but miss their mother desperately and even more so when they discover she did not survive the injuries sustained in the bombing of the train station as they were leaving. Further disaster strikes when the house they are evacuated to is bombed. They emerge unscathed from the wreckage and meet a billeting officer who takes them to new accommodation. But it quickly becomes apparent that all is not as it seems and deciding to go with this man they meet was possibly the worse choice they could ever have made. I did think it a bit odd that two girls would go so readily with someone they literally had just met but I suppose Daisy thought that she was doing the right thing.

As they arrive at Farmer Reeves isolated home on Dartmoor they think they will have a wonderful stay on the farm until the war is over. But this image of perfection could not be further from the truth and what follows was so brilliantly written. There were so many twists and turns that I couldn’t leave the book out of my hands and it’s been awhile since I have read a book like that. That’s what makes me love Ann Bennett’s stories. You think they are just another run of the mill saga books amongst the hundreds published each year but instead between the pages awaiting you are surprising reads that really take you on a journey full of mystery and intrigue and in this case torture, cruelty, deprivation and loss.

You really can’t help but feel for Daisy and Peggy. They expected security but got the total opposite as alongside other orphans they were expected to work long hours toiling away in the fields. Basically they were slave labour and no one knew such a thing was happening. It’s not like anyone was going to quickly come to their rescue. The author described everything so well, the set up on the farm, the conditions they were forced to live in and how they coped on a day to day basis. Daisy was brave, strong and courageous and time and time again she shouldered the burden so Peggy could be spared. But would her actions be enough or prove too costly? Some readers may think the violence and mistreatment described are a bit too much but I think everything needed to be there laid out in black and white with no detail spared as it added to the overall atmosphere being created. The themes being dealt with and how they connected to the past wouldn’t have had the same powerful impact if the author had glossed over facts or spared details.

The characters are all moulded by circumstances by the dreadful ordeal they are forced to endure, and you keep wondering will Daisy and Peggy ever make it to freedom or will the evil, ignorant, brutal and unscrupulous Farmer Reeves have his way? I enjoyed how some romance was thrown in too as it allowed for the creation of several other storylines which only added even more bite to the story. The only slight fault I found was that one or two things became ever so slightly far fetched towards the end and that things were just that little bit too rushed as we raced towards the conclusion. Another chapter or two would have avoided this. But apart from that The Runaway Sisters was an excellent read. It’s a real emotional, page turner that has left me wanting more new stories from Ann Bennett as soon as possible.

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