Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Love and War - by Lydia Syson

Love and war - opposites or inextricably tangled? I’d say the latter.

I don’t know how long love and war have been linked in my own mind. Maybe since reading Eric Newby’s evocative memoir of his years as a prisoner-of-war in Italy: Love and War in the Apennines. Maybe forever.

It makes perfect sense to me that one extreme state should lead to another. As the stakes get ever higher, people really do fall in love more quickly.Anyone who condemns fictional ‘Insta-Love’ should probably read Flickerbook, the fragmented autobiography of pioneering children’s author Leila Berg. In London during the Spanish Civil War, she fends off one marriage proposal after another from International Brigade volunteers about to depart for battle. (Two of her lovers died.) Even the most hard-boiled 1930s communist activists could be surprisingly conventional when it came to wartime romance.

Neither war nor love are exactly the height of fashion in the YA world just now. Although historical fiction could hardly be more popular in adult markets, it’s another story altogether when it comes to teens. (Come to Past Imperfect? at the Society of Authors on March 16th if you want to discuss this further - it's sold out, but audio tickets are still available.) The backlash against romance is perhaps more understandable and in some ways even welcome: in its most traditional form, the genre can fit uncomfortably with contemporary gender politics. Of course it doesn't have to, and romance set in the past can offer valuable historical perspective on precisely that topic.

Happily, YA publishers haven’t given up on historical romance. Its appeal remains enormous. The best stories borrow the genre’s tropes, and redefine them, not necessarily in particularly dramatic ways.

Lively, independent and thoughtful heroines combined with well-researched, convincing settings make all the difference. In two new historical romances set in World War Two, A Time to Live and Wait for Me, both Sue Purkiss and Caroline Leech use excellent characterisation and a strong sense of family relationships to stay away from cliché. Though written for very different readerships, the two novels have a lot in common. Both explore young women’s lives on the rural home front. Both address the transformative powers of love and war. Both are deceptively sweet and simple, but are haunted by horrific events happening ‘off-stage’.

A Time to Live is one of a number of books by SASSIES in ‘Promises’, Ransom Publishing’s new
series for teenagers who struggle with reading. A hi-lo novel –– high interest, low reading age – it’s a hugely engaging love story set in occupied France, told with deft economy of plot and language. Seventeen-year-old Sylvie finds an injured British pilot and, with the help of her brother Pierre, shelters him on her family farm. Jack is a rear-gunner – a ‘tail-end Charlie’ - the most dangerous
position in a bomber crew. Sylvie and Pierre know that they are putting the whole family at risk by protecting him. Their father just wants to keep his head down and stay out of trouble. If he discovers Jack, he will hand him in without a qualm.

Everything changes when a letter arrives from a relative in Paris. The reality of what's happening on their doorstep, to friends of relatives, is brought home in a few short lines. ‘”They rounded up Jews from all over Paris. The children were separated from their parents and kept in a sports stadium for days – with no food, no water. Thousands of them…’” Sylvie’s mother reports. ‘Can you imagine - can you imagine how afraid they must have been? And now…they’ve all been taken away. No one knows where.’ In a few short lines, we have learnt of the infamous ‘Veld’Hiv Roundup’ of July 1942, when over 1300 Jews, nearly a third of these children, were held in appalling conditions in a velodrome before being shipped in cattletrucks to Auschwitz. The news encourages Sylvie to confide in her mother about Jack, and Papa, shamed by his previous efforts to hide his head in the sand, is suddenly determined to play his part. Together, the family hides Jack ‘in plain sight’, transforming him into Jacques Moulin, farmworker. Soon Sylvie has fallen for him. But to save him, she’ll have to help him escape.

A Time to Live’s concise diary format keeps events gripping and immediate, filtering the big ideas – life under occupation, the day-to-day work of the Resistance, emotional sacrifice– through the voice of a hugely likeable, resourceful heroine. It’s a wonderfully accessible way into the many pleasures of historical fiction. Appetite-whetting stuff indeed.

Caroline Leech takes forbidden love in another direction, inspired by one of the many prisoner-of-war camps in Britain whose German or Italian inmates were sent to work on local farms. I was immediately reminded of an unforgettable film I saw when I was a teenager myself, Another Time, Another Place, starring a young Phyllis Logan, and I steeled myself for heartbreak. Happily, Wait for Me is neither so bleak nor so tragic.

It’s set in 1945 in East Lothian, rather than the Highlands, and its heroine is a feisty seventeen-year-old with two brothers away in the army. She’s horrified when a German prisoner arrives to work on the farm, all the more because his face is horribly disfigured – scarred by burns sustained during the
D-Day Landings, as it transpires. You’ve guessed it – Lorna slowly falls in love with Paul, who comes from Dresden: already there is a clue that the end of the war may prove bitter-sweet.

It’s a year of growing up for Lorna, who comes to understand that the world is far less black and white than she had imagined. The love story is satisfying, but not always centre-stage: for me, the beauty of Wait for Me lies in Leech’s delicate tracing of Lorna’s changing relationships with a whole cast of characters, including other women, young and old, such as lively land girl, Nellie - glamorous, risk-taking and a real survivor – and best friend Iris, engaged to marry the horribly controlling vicar’s son, William, who is almost too repulsive, but perfectly plausible. Questions of friendship, loyalty, sexual consent and the emotional damage caused by war are woven in with care: particularly memorable scenes take place a US army base dance hall and after the return of one of Lorna’s brother on leave. It’s easy to lose yourself in this engrossing book, which offers a convincing portrait of life in a Scottish coastal community during World War Two, while exploring themes that, unfortunately, will always be relevant.

Given World-War domination of historical fiction for the young, I can’t resist also recommending a couple of books I read last year, both of which deserve prizes, plaudits and wide recognition all round for their brilliant illuminations of two much more obscure twentieth-century conflicts: Ireland’s Easter Rising and Fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

In Name upon Name (the title is borrowed from Yeats) Sheena Wilkinson portrays a peculiarly complicated home front: in Belfast in 1916. Helen is the daughter of a Presbyterian father and a Catholic mother. She has a cousin on one side of the family who is an officer in the British Army and another on the other side who, despite his family’s ardent Irish nationalism, runs away to join up in – only to find himself sent to Dublin, instead of France, to put down the Rising. What’s more important? Family or country? Can you spend your whole life trying to believe two different things at once?

Identity, familial love – however you define family – politics and loyalty are also central to Elizabeth Wein’s extraordinary Black Dove, White Raven, which is also extraordinarily ambitious.Swooping from segregated 1930s America to Africa’s oldest independent country, Ethiopia, this is a complex, many-layered narrative, consisting of story fragments, flight logbooks, and journals, through which shine the alternating voices of young Theo and Em. They are the son and daughter of ‘Black Dove’ and ‘White Raven’, a pair of idealistic stunt pilots who defy race laws and convention as well as gravity in their barnstorming shows across the US. Until a freak accident kills Delia. Em’s mother Rhoda is initially struck down by grief, but eventually takes the children to live in Ethiopia, where they grow up in relative freedom on a coffee co-operative. The slow, steady build towards the war pays off in spades, allowing the landscape to come alive as much as the perfectly flawed and perfectly admirable characters who inhabit it: the last third of the book is impossible to put down. Heart in mouth, we fly above the country, in one daring mission after another, till we reach the utter horror of the Italian air attack on Addis – the too-often forgotten beginning of twentieth-century ‘total war’. I don’t suppose anybody would call this historical romance, but yes, this book too is about love and war, like no other.

Postscript: I just re-read the opening chapter of Eric Newby’s memoir. He is setting off by submarine on a mission to save Malta from capitulation ‘the worst possible kind of operation’. He says he ‘felt like one of those rather ludicrous, ill-briefed agents who had been landed by night on Romney Marsh in the summer of 1940, all of whom had been captured and shot.’ A reference which passed me by when I first read Love and War all those years ago, but one which will make perfect sense to readers of my own WW2 novel, That Burning Summer, published in the US by Sky Pony Press today.



Rowena House said...

Fantastic post, Lydia, and great book recommendations. All now on my TBR list. Very best of luck with the new book.

Penny Dolan said...

Great to see all these excellent recommendations and reminders here, Lydia, especially for the pre-teens & teens who struggle with reading but are interested in more serious topics. Every success for your own new title!

Ann Turnbull said...

Thanks for this great post, Lydia. I was scribbling a TBR list as I read...

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Late to this, but thanks so much for the mention of Name Upon Name. And yes, some new titles to order here!