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Homeland - Clare Francis

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Author: Clare Francis / Genre: Fiction

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      31.07.2006 21:02
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      A war time veteran and Polish emigre struggle to upkeep Somerset farm

      Claire Francis is a round the world yachtswoman, who has written books not only recounting her experiences at sea, but also several novels, of which Homeland was first published in 2004.

      Set in the immediate aftermath of World War 2, it follows the lives of two men. Billy Greer, somewhat of a misfit, was placed with relatives on a lonely farm in the Somerset levels after a spell on the streets as a child. He returns from serving in the army in France and Germany during the last years of the war, to find his grandmother bedridden with a stroke and that his unloved grandfather has seriously neglected the family business. Despite his determination to take up his army-buddy's vague promise of a job in London, Billy finds his attraction to a local widow reluctantly draws him back to his rural roots.

      Interwoven with this is the story of Wladyslaw, a Polish displaced person, living in a nearby army camp. Forcibly removed from his homeland, his family was conscripted by the invading Russians for forced labour in Siberia. When the Russian/German axis breaks down, the Polish army is reconstituted and eventually shipped out to the Middle East under the auspices of the British government. Wladyslaw joins up, and the surviving members of his family accompany him there. However, they become separated, and the end of the war finds him in a camp in Somerset, unable to decide between reclaiming his Polish citizenship in a country now under Soviet rule, or applying for employment locally.

      With the help of a local doctor he overcomes his injuries and is reluctantly taken on by Billy to cut withies, which are grown and sold for wicker cane.

      The two extraordinary aspects of this novel are firstly the setting, a remote area of country, prone to flooding, and secondly, the research into the polish experience. I found both very interesting, and the latter moving, as I had not known about it before. There is small section at the end of the book giving a fuller explanation of the historical background.

      The story then jumps forward a few months, as Billy moves to London to sell expensive cars, and Wladyslaw settles into the routine of farm life, falling in love with a local teacher. His peace of mind, however, is threatened by the return of Lyndon Hanley from Burma, and the last part of the book centres around a murder.

      Francis tackles the problem of an influx of foreigners integrating into the local community, who themselves are still suffering problems of lack of adequate housing and the privations of war, including rationing. It is coincidentally also a timely reminder of parallels in our own, more affluent country.

      One of the things I would have enjoyed reading more about, are the two leading female characters, Annie and Stella. Annie is the widowed mother of a young girl, who has had a relationship with Billy in the past, although we are not really told why they went their separate ways. Now Billy has returned, he pursues her again.

      At first I thought she liked him, then that she was totally disinterested. When he returns from working in London, her attitude seems to have changed gain, and was not sure why. Perhaps I missed a subtle hint, but it did not seem to be explained in particular depth. As the reader, I was left to gather my own interpretation - leaving it up to female intuition, perhaps?

      Likewise, Stella's character, who is closely connected to Lyndon, is not fully explored. I thought this was a shame, as they both had the potential to be interesting figures. However, this offfset by the strength of the male figures. Francis seems to have concentrated on these two at the expense of the female figures.

      Elsewhere, I was gripped by the story of the elderly doctor, who puts the welfare of his patients before his own health. He seems to have a sensibility that the modern reader can relate to, in his liberal attitude to the Polish migrants.

      I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and it is not overtly a crime novel, although it will probably be classed as such. The research is excellent and the style easy to read, but does not talk down to the reader. It is very atmospheric and captures the spirit of the times precisely.

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