I picked up this book in a Borders' last day sale along with a good few other books that I was getting for around 40p. The blurb made it sound interesting enough, so I bought it and forgot about it until I picked it out of the bag again at random and began to read it.
At the start of the book, we meet Nora, an elderly woman and the book's main character. The story is narrated in first person from her point of view; but we learn almost immediately that Nora has a fatal illness and will not have long left to live. The narration of the book is also unique in that it switches between two periods of time in Nora's life: the first being her as an old, dying woman; and the second being her as a young war evacuee.
The elderly Nora, at the beginning of the novel, clearly has a number of secrets, and finding out what these are is what keeps the reader so intrigued. We want to find out, for example, why Nora chooses not to seek treatment for her illness, instead choosing to meet her death with dignity. Her life is enriched somewhat when she helps to deliver the baby of her teenage neighbour, a young girl called Rose who has been living alone and in extremely poor conditions. She offers to let Rose and her baby daughter move in with her, which she accepts, giving Nora a companion and confidante in her final days.
The 12 year old Nora is a Londoner living in impoverished conditions with her mother. On the outbreak of war, she is evacuated to the Kent countryside, reluctantly leaving her mother. It is there that she meets Grace Rivers and her mother Evelyn, and goes to live with them and Mr Rivers, the village minister. She soon becomes close friends with Grace, and over the years blossoms from a shy, naive girl into a mature, intelligent young woman. The problem is that she has fallen in love with Grace along the way.
Catherine Hall beautifully portrays both the young Nora's struggle to come to terms and even attempt to banish her feelings, and the elderly Nora's struggle to release the pain of her past. There are a number of characters showing a range of personalities, from ruthless to depressive, and Nora's character development is crafted excellently, allowing the reader to become very fond of her and share her anguish to some degree. One of my very few criticisms of Days of Grace lies in the characterisation of Grace: she is supposed to be perceived as a lovable, free-spirited girl; however I personally found her to be a bit shallow and uninteresting. I think Grace being a more likeable character would have added even more merit to the novel - but as it is excellent the way it is, this can be overlooked.
Hall has a wonderful command of language and is very skilled in drawing the reader into the story. She often uses the senses to describe certain events, which allows the reader to imagine they are really there experiencing them. Her descriptions of characters and events make them very believable even when they are far from the norm.
One possible drawback is that Days of Grace is an extremely sad story, which may make it off-putting to some people who prefer a cheerier read. However, for those who enjoy a deeply moving, emotional book, it is definitely a novel not to miss. Just make sure you have your tissues at the ready - it's a real tearjerker, as I found out all too well. Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed Days of Grace and thought about it frequently for days after reading it. I will definitely be looking out for more of Catherine Hall's books in the future.