Fallen Skies by Philippa Gregory was published in 1994. Unlike the Tudor novels which she is most famous for, this book is set in the 1920s straight after the First World War. The main characters of the novel are Lily Pears, a young singer embarking on her career; and Captain Stephen Winters, decorated officer newly back from the front.
Lily uses the stage name of Lily Valance. She lives with her protective mother above the greengrocer's shop which they own in Portsmouth. Lily's mother Helen has scrimped and saved over the years in order to give Lily a good education so she can have a better life than she herself had. Lily's father was killed in the war after volunteering, and Lily hates any mention of the war to be made. Lily is a talented singer and with the help of Charlie Smith, the Musical Director, is determined to become a star.
Stephen has recently returned from Belgium, and is clearly still affected by the war and all the atrocities that he witnessed. His elder brother, Christopher, enrolled straight away and was killed within the first few weeks. Christopher was the apple of his parents eye, and upon hearing of his death his father suffered a stroke was left bed ridden and unable to care for himself. Stephen was determined not to go and fight despite pressure from his parents and only enrolled when it became clear that if he did not enrol as an officer, he would be conscripted as a soldier. His companion and batman from the war and now employed as his driver is a young man named Coventry, so named as he does not speak.
Lily and Charlie become close but due to a war wound, Charlie feels that he is unable to give Lily what she deserves despite their obvious love and affection. When tragedy strikes Lily, she finally agrees to marry Stephen seeing no other way to survive. As the book progresses an increasingly dark side to Stephen is revealed and I started to guess at what else he was hiding that would be exposed later in the book. I am not usually one to try to guess what will happen at the end, I get so caught up enjoying the moment, but with this book it was so obvious that something wasn't right! I felt increasingly sorry for Lily after their wedding as Stephen seems to have no emotion or compassion. He seems to be planning one step ahead in order to control Lily and her life, and is prone to violence with no provocation. When Lily convinces him against his wishes to let her perform on stage after their wedding, he ensures she soon gets pregnant knowing she will not be able to continue.
Stephen's relationship with his parents has completely broken down. His mother is struggling to cope without Christopher, and also with how times have changed - she is a stickler for etiquette and tradition. Stephen regularly taunts his invalid father who is unable to talk back to him. He even refuses to be seen walking down the road with him when Lily orders a wheelchair so he is able to leave the house for the first time in years.
I was left guessing at the relationship between Stephen and Coventry. It is difficult to judge when one person never speaks, but I was left wondering who needed whom most. There are obviously deep secrets between the two of them that they can never speak about with anyone else.
Stephen's main reason for marrying Lily is to help him forget the war. He feels that her youth and innocence are all that he needs to help him forget everything he has seen and to escape the nightmares he constantly wakes up from screaming. It is not until later in the book that we see what actually happened in the farmhouse in Belgium.
I am a big Philippa Gregory fan already and I really enjoyed the book. It was great being told from both Lily and Stephens perspective and discovering why they were acting in a certain way without the other one being aware of the reasons. Initially I wasn't sure about Lily's character. Her opinions about the war and an outburst at the beginning of the book about it, where she says that it was not her war, she was too young, she didn't ask them to fight and she didn't care about it, showed an incredibly selfish side to her. As the book continues it becomes clear that she is just trying to get on with her life as well as she can. Stephen does not come across well at all, but it is clear that he is completely suffering with shell shock or a similar post war complaint, something that as a man he would never admit to.
The end of the book was very exciting. I really didn't want to stop reading as I had to find out what had happened. I was getting closer and closer to the end of the book and although I thought I had guessed who was responsible, I just couldn't figure out how!
The book is long and quite tedious at times with a lot of irrelevant detail but this could just Gregory setting the scene, but the general storyline is fantastic. I became quite absorbed in the characters despite their obvious flaws and would recommend to my friends.
Available new on Amazon for £1.14 + £2.80 postage. Paperback is 640 pages.
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Why this book
Having enjoyed a lot of Philippa Gregory's novels set in Tudor Britain when a friend suggested I read this book I was more than willing to give it a try. Especially as it is set in another favourite time in history of mine the 1920's. However I found the book less satisfying than Gregory's Tudor novels.
About the author
Philippa Gregory is an internationally renowned author of Historical fiction. She holds a PhD from Edinburgh University. She lives in Yorkshire on a small farm several of her novels have been adapted fro television and film the most famous probably of these is The Other Boleyn Girl. A full author's biography can be found at her website which is www.philippagregory.com
About the book
Lilly Valance wants to forget the war ever happened and is set on having a great time in the world of music and the stage. She is just making the transfer from chorus girl to a singing soloist when she meets Captain Stephen Winters. He has return from the First World War a hero but is tormented by what he saw in the trenches and during his service. In Lilly he sees someone who isn't tainted by the war and can offer him salvation from his nightmares. Lilly has no intention of giving her singing career up but the situation changes and before she knows it she is married to Steven and living with him and his parents in a repressive household where appearances are everything. As they can't even acknowledge Steven father Rory's stroke and the impact this has on them and him how will Lilly fit into this life and what is the impact of the marriage on both of them is the main theme of the book.
I found reading this book a very mixed experience some of parts of the book were wonderfully crafted and written whilst others just seemed to be put together in a in a very writing by numbers style e.g. one bad husband check one repressed mother in law check.
The bits I like first then, I think Gregory does a great job of portraying just how much power husbands had over their wives in the early part of the last century. She captures well the lack of power woman had at this time and especially women from a poor background and the lack of choices they had. She writes very delicately about the dark and terrible imagery of war and though this uncomfortable reading it was the best part of the story. It was breathtaking the way the author has captured your emotions and instills in you the horror of the events. She has captured perfectly the brutally of war and the impact that this had on people. Equally some of the scenes in Steven and Lilly's current life are explicit and brutal and make you positively wince.
Now the bits I didn't like and unfortunately there are more of these. Whilst none of the characters were pure evil or perfectly good either I found it very hard to warm to the main characters within the novel. I actually found myself wanting to know more about Rory Steven's father and more about Coventry the chauffeur as these seemed the more plausible characters to me and less like caricatures as the central characters did. From previous novels I have read by this author I know she likes dark characters but I found Lily to be too spoiled and Stephen too brooding to sympathize with either of them too much and this for me was the main flaw in the novel. I don't mind not be able to understand or share experiences with characters I read about in books but I do like to care about them as this is what keeps me turning the pages. Unfortunately Lilly and Steven at times were just plain annoying and I found myself not caring too much about their fate
The plot twists and turns are all pretty obvious I think and some of them such as Steven's, "Dark Secret" are eminently guessable really. This I think also lets the novel down as a few surprises would have been nice.
Several times when I was reading this book I asked myself why I was bothering with it and came close to putting it down but I hate doing that and generally always try to finished a book if I have started it.
The plot is very fast-moving with lots of drama and you hurtle very quickly to the end. Which brings me on to my last gripe really the ending was very unsatisfying and inconclusive. It was also unsurprising, and from this point of view the suspense falls sadly flat. It felt as if the last chapter had been missed out of my book as it just seemed to come to such an abrupt end. Now I am sure this was deliberate to get you as the reader to imagine your own ending but to me it just left a bitter taste in my mouth that we did find out how the fall out of these events affected people.
Now this book is a recent re release as it was originally published in 1994 I believe. I think you can tell how Gregory's story telling abilities have developed over the years and how some of her later novels are much more polished and rounded than this novel. whilst this book has some good elements it remind me of a good wine that has been open a day or so in that there are notes of quality and depth but there is something missing and it has a slightly off taste to it.
I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone looking for something romantic or uplifting as it is very dark and brooding. I have given it 3 stars for the good descriptions of the era and war memories but it does lack Gregory's usual writing flare and genius. I am glad I didn't buy this book and was happy to return it to my friend.
Paperback: 640 pages
Publisher: Harper (16 Oct 2006)
Currently on sale on Amazon for £5.96 new on the Amazon market place used from 1 pence.
~Introduction & Genre~
I'm a big fan of historical fiction - particularly stories set in the first world war and the 1920s, so was immediately drawn to this novel by Philippa Gregory, especially after enjoying several of her other books. Fallen Skies didn't disappoint, and I would say it's my favourite Philippa Gregory novel so far. I've heard people say this is not a historical novel as such - partly because its characters are fictional (compared to stories set in the Tudor court, for example). However, I disagree because I feel that the atmosphere, historical setting and emotions all seem based on reality and likely scenarios - despite the characters and events not being 'real' as such.
~The book ~
Fallen Skies is set in the 1920s, in an England still recovering from and scarred by the horrors of the First World War. Without giving away too much, it tells the story of Lily Valance, a young music-hall singer, and Captain Stephen Winters, a former soldier looking for an escape from his terrible memories. They meet after Stephen watches her perform one night and is captivated by her - he sees being with Lily as a way to become happy again as she has no connection to the war. The story traces their lives and the events that arise over the next year or two as Lily strives to further her singing career and their lives become more and more entwined. Any more detail about the plot would spoil the story for you if you are interested in reading it!
Lily is young, beautiful and frivolous; she hates hearing anything to do with the war, and feels it marred her childhood because it prevented her from doing things she wanted. A little selfish, you might think! Well, yes, that was my first impression of Lily - however, I definitely grew to like her more as the story progressed. She develops into a caring, affectionate young woman and I found myself willing her on - and really disliking Stephen. Through his actions (most towards Lily and his own father, who is bed-ridden after a stroke) Stephen is painted as a really manipulative and thoroughly unpleasant individual who is difficult to warm to, although I did feel sympathy towards him due to the awful things he has been through during the War.
The other main characters are Coventry, Stephen's chauffeur and former bat-man, who is unable to speak due to his experiences in the trenches; Stephen's parents - who are rather straight-laced, and distraught from the loss of their favourite son, Christopher; and Charlie, who works at the theatre with Lily and plays an increasing role as the story progresses. I took a shine to Coventry as he was portrayed as being very loyal and kind. His friendship with Stephen is complicated, as they have shared such harrowing experiences which have created a strong bond between them. Despite their friendship, you never escape from the employer/employee (upper/working class) angle, which I suppose is a feature of the way society was in those days.
~The good and the bad~
I really enjoyed this story and couldn't put it down. The characterisation is particularly good: the characters are drawn vividly and I could really picture them in my mind's eye, and had a clear opinion of them all, which is something I appreciate in a story.
I felt that the author had really researched the period well, and explores some very interesting issues - not just how people were affected by the First World War, but also how life was for women in the 1920s and how limited their options were, as well as social class and the way different levels of the - still pretty strict even then - class system interacted with each other. The aftermath of the First World War is obviously a thread which runs right through the book, some of the main characters having been permanently affected by their experiences in the trenches. The fact that there was no real understanding in those days of shellshock or the psychological damage inflicted is really sad, and Stephen is a clear example of how former combatants suffered with little help from civil society. Coventry is another character who bears the scars of the war, and it isn't really known whether his inability to speak is due to physical injury or psychological trauma.
The only fault I can find with this book (and why it hasn't got 5 stars from me) was the hazy ending - it would obviously be a terrible spoiler to go into details but I found it rather ambiguous. A story being open to interpretation and giving you the opportunity to draw your own conclusions is not always a bad thing and maybe it's a fitting ending for this story, but I really felt I wanted the loose ends tied up!
Overall I found this a highly enjoyable read and actually started reading it again once I'd finished, which is very rare for me!
I hope this has been helpful and thanks for reading!