Reviewed by Emma Crowley
1946, Norfolk, England: Grief and fear spill over in Fran’s small village when German prisoners of war are sent to the nearby camp. After the death of her beloved brother on the front lines, Fran cannot see the new arrivals as anything but his killers.
When one of the mines the Germans are clearing from the beach explodes, Fran is thrown into the path of prisoner Thomas as they rush to help the wounded. Thomas’s kind, artistic nature and his bravery, putting himself in danger to save others, changes everything for Fran. She realises he is a boy just like her brother and was forced to fight in a war he never believed in.
From that day on, there is something powerful and unspoken connecting Fran and Thomas. But as battle lines are drawn across Europe and tensions within the village reach breaking point, they could be about to unleash something neither of them can control…
1989, Berlin: Tiffany arrives in Berlin from London, just as the wall that divided a nation finally falls. With only a few words of German, she celebrates with strangers in the streets, and crosses the border between West and East. In her pocket is a crumpled letter addressed to her grandmother, yellowed with age, that has led her in search of a wartime secret with the power to change her future…
Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The English Girl to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
It’s been three years since Sarah’s Mitchell’s last historical fiction book The Lost Letters and now she has returned with The English Girl. Looking back on my thoughts on that first book, I said that it was a promising start from the author but I sensed there was much more to come from her in the future. Well she has certainly delivered with this new story. It’s very well written with such descriptive phrases detailing the Norfolk landscape and the great snow of 1947 which only add to the heightened atmosphere of tension, unease and danger. Honestly, it’s a much better book than what I had read previously from this author. Yes, perhaps the pace slowed somewhat in the middle, but I didn’t think there was any rambling on therefore not moving the plot on overall. I found myself totally caught up in Fran’s story and she turned out to be a remarkable character. There is a good solid plot throughout with well developed characters you come to care for and you really want that perfect ending but reading of all the developments you are fearful that it cannot be at all possible.
The book opens as Tiffany arrives in West Berlin just as the wall is coming down. She is in search of something in East Berlin. Recent news has come to light that has sent her on a quest that she is desperate to fulfil. The people’s tide is turning Germany on its head. There will be no more boarders, only one Berlin with freedom at its centre. Tiffany crosses the boarder in search of answers. Initially, I thought oh no I had in the last few weeks read a book about the wall coming down and delving back into the past and did I really want to read more or less the same story. But thankfully, Tiffany, although her role is an important one, just features at the beginning and the end.
Really she could have been left out completely and the story would have worked just perfectly. I get that she was the one who linked things together but perhaps it could have been done in a different way. Saying that, once we began to delve into Fran’s story I completely forgot that Tiffany had even been mentioned. I became completely caught up in all the various storylines for there were several that fed into the main overall plot and this story showing the power of hope in the face of war amidst the legacy of a terrible choice was riveting.
It’s October 1946 and war has been over for a year but its affects are still being felt. Rationing is worse than ever and mines and barbed wire still litter the nearby beaches. Fran and her sister June and her parents are mourning the loss of their brother Robbie. But anger abounds amongst the villagers as a group of German prisoners of war are being brought to a newly established camp in the village. They will work clearing the mines. Given so many young men from the village were lost and overall what Germany as a country did to so many rightly so the villagers are filled with anger and hatred. It’s a natural reaction and they wish that their village had never been selected to house said prisoners.
From the off, the big question for the reader to ponder is can we be friends/form relationships with those that caused so much death, hurt and devastation? Are we not to forgive all people? Forgiving and forgetting is not all that easy, and events linger on long in the minds of those deeply affected. You try as a reader to try and put yourself in that position and think could I really welcome prisoners with open arms? But then as with Fran who showed a remarkable positive stance you think as did she that the prisoners didn’t start the war, that most were just ordinary men following rules in fear of the repercussions if they did not.
Fran was a very open minded person compared to her sister June who was eaten up by hatred due to the loss of her brother. I could see where June was coming from just as much as I could see Fran was willing to be more open to understanding and trying to forge forward. Really the characters were caught between a rock and a hard place given the differing opinions they had, and you couldn’t blame them for feeling this way. Fran gets a job in the offices of the camp working alongside Daisy. Major Toby Markham runs the camp but he is hardly ever there and Fran finds him strange. When she sees a man being set upon in an alleyway and enlists the help of a passing truck carrying prisoners this is where she meets Thomas face to face. Fran feels an instant connection to him and anyone who saw this would tell her that it was wrong especially June. The way their relationship develops was not full of passionate love and full on devotion to each other yet it was there lurking and would have fully bloomed in the wide open if allowed to do so. It couldn’t have happened this way given Fran was putting herself in a dangerous and precarious situation given Thomas’ status as a prisoner.
Instead it’s more subtle and moments are snatched together when they think no one will discover them. There’s is an unspeakable, private connection that cannot be exposed to the wider world. Yes, she is puting herself in the firing line. If discovered the consequences would be disastrous for everyone but Fran sees something in Thomas that she has searched for all her life. Her heart and mind are working as one and she sees the kindness and empathy in his eyes. Forbidden love is not easy to navigate and even more so in the circumstances in which this has come to pass. What can Fran do when love is seemingly impossible in a relationship that will have such far reaching consequences? Not to mention the other strands of the story she becomes entangled in through no fault of her own.
Viv is married to Toby. It’s a marriage that she views as being sterile and desperate. Her actions during the war still are being felt and she is on her own path desperate to break free but guilt does eat away at her. For the ultimate decision she makes could possibly have the most disastrous of consequences. I found Viv to be cold and selfish and far too caught up in her own little world to see what was happening around her. She was on a road with only one destination in mind and couldn’t see that in fact the end pale was possibly not going to turn out the way she wished it. She was being played but her emotions were fogging her decision making process. If she had had more of a clear mind she would have seen how much pain Toby was enduring and that emotions and tensions were running high. The effects of war were having the most detrimental, adverse and disturbing effects on her husband and she was too caught up in her own little circle of emotion to see that. I thought this strand of the story was so well written and you could just imagine placing yourself in their situation and asking yourself how you would deal with it?.
The last character that has a subplot is Martin, brother of Daisy. I did think why was he getting such prominence? But over the course of the story I came to realise the author was dealing with many issues that arose at the time following the conclusion of the war. That yes, he needed to be there. Martin never went away to war having not received a clean bill of health. Heart trouble kept him at a desk job during the war years and he is eaten up by guilt that he couldn’t fight for his country. He is full of shame and anxiety that never seems to fade. Who will love him giving he was one who never left to do their bit on the battlefields for their country? Martin was a complex character given the emotions he was grappling with but I came to appreciate his inclusion as he was essential to the overall story.
I am so glad I read The English Girl. I admit to feeling slightly hesitant given how I had felt about the previous book I had read by this author. But it just goes to show you should always give an author another try as this was an engrossing, informative read that was full of love, hope, acceptance and it is well worth a read.