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In March 1912 David Graham is a University student in Urbana, Illinois. He's just read a book of poetry by Elspeth Dunn, who lives on Scotland's Isle of Skye. Impressed, he decides to write to her, and thereby begins a correspondence that will change both their lives. Just over 28 years later, Margaret's best friend is about to join the war as a RAF fighter pilot, when she realizes she's in love with him, as much as he is in love with her. When a bomb rips through the wall of her mother's Edinburgh house, out spill piles of letters her mother has been keeping since before the Great War. The next morning, her mother and the letters are gone - except for the one yellowed page Margaret picked up. The contents of that letter are so mysterious, it leads her to a quest to discover the secrets her mother has kept all her life, which might also answer her own questions of who she is. This is Jessica Brockmole's debut novel, "Letters from Skye."
If you think epistolary novels are a hackneyed way to tell a story, you must have read the wrong ones. Personally, I've always held a fascination for the genre, despite how voyeuristic that may seem. As a literary mechanic, it allows the author to write in first person using more than one point of view. This is a far more personal approach than any of the third-person narrative methods. It also is a way to spare the reader from long descriptive passages that detail the characters' backgrounds. This is particularly true when the letters are exchanged between two strangers, since they can hint at their pasts, or recount memories to each other.
The difficulty, however, is keeping the "voices" of the different writers clearly distinguishable from one another. This is all the more tricky if the letters are from men as well as women or if setting is an historical one. In "Letters from Skye" Brockmole not only has both these obstacles, but she doubles it by having sets of correspondence from two different eras. The question then is does Brockmole deliver? The short answer to this is 'yes.' The more detailed answer reveals this 'yes' grows from a tentative one into a resounding one.
As I began reading this book, I was immediately captured by the two characters, David and Elspeth. Initially, however, the language of these two early 20th century correspondents seemed just a bit on the overly modern side. Thankfully, this tiny niggle totally dissipated within a handful of pages. As the two get to know each other better, the familiarity between them builds. At the same time, their letters become increasingly lyrical. David's vivaciously mischievous nature plays on Elspeth's secluded shyness, and drawing her out of herself, despite herself. Brockmole brings us increasingly into these lives and relationship like a slow zoom-in until we reach the close-up of their actual physical meeting. From there, the camera once again widens its angle and takes the two of them in together as the Great War unfolds and affects them.
This is carefully interjected with Margaret's investigation into her mother's (and own) past on the background of WW2. After the bombing incident and her mother's subsequent disappearance, she writes to Paul, her fiancé the RAF pilot in the war. He encourages her with her quest. She also contacts her mother's estranged brother and even winds up on Skye to meet her grandparents for the first time, hoping they and her mother's other brother can help put the puzzle together for her. Both these sets of letters wind together like a carefully choreographed dance, interspersed with Elspeth's new search to find out what happened to David after the previous war.
That Margaret's voice in her letters is strikingly similar to Elspeth's is totally understandable. They are, after all, mother and daughter. On the surface, the two of them seem to be very different. But as we get to know them both better, we realize how similar they both are, including the parallels of women who fall in love during war, which only heightens this. As Margaret pieces together the parts of her mother's life, while we watch them unfold in Elspeth's letters with David, we become even more emotionally involved with all of these characters. Yes, there are bits of the story we can guess, but that doesn't lessen this in the least.
Through the combination of a mystery and decades of a relationship that blooms on the page, Brockmole gives us a perfectly painted portrait of the joys of love and pains of deception that are heightened by the wars that wage around them. Together with this, we are also witness to the stark beauty of Scotland's wild and remote Isle of Skye, and the blatant horrors of the battlefields of France. I can promise you, that by the time you've gotten about a third into this book, you'll find it almost impossible to put it down. Plus, when Brockmole brings us to the ultimate climax, I simply dare you not to shed more than a just few tears. For all this, Brockmole's debut novel "Letters from Skye" deserves a full five stars out of five, and is highly recommended.
This review originally appeared on Yahoo! Voices.
"Letters from Skye" by Jessica Brockmole is due to be released on July 9, 2013 by Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine. Thanks to the publishers for providing an advance reader's copy via Netgalley