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I seem to be reading a lot of war books lately, but a friend recommended this to me and I have to admit I borrowed her copy to read. It's one of those books that look like a good read and it was short listed for the Orange Prize 2010, therefore I expected it to be worthwhile. The Times called it 'Melancholic, mysterious and heartbreakingly gorgeous, so that suggested a love story and in that matter it lived up to its hype.
In essence the story is a fairly simple one. It's about separation, both wartime and after. It starts with a mother and daughter parting at St Pancreas station in London. Little 8-year-old Anna Sands is being evacuated to an unknown destination to escape the expected bombing of London. The year is 1939 and nobody really knew what to expect. If I remember from my history lessons, this particular period was often called the 'false war' certainly it was a few years before the Blitz devastated London.
Anna is excited as she expects to be going to the seaside. The fear and strain of parting is mitigated by that expectation, but also, I believe, because the author is writing about a middle-class family, where stiff-upper lip was followed.
Anna doesn't go to the seaside though, she is sent with eighty-five other children to a large mansion house in Yorkshire, home of the Ashton's, a married couple, but childless. Anna comes to know them well. Thomas is in his thirties, the last heir of a great family and wheelchair-bound by Polio contacted in his twenties. Elizabeth is his glamorous but tortured wife. Thomas teaches the children for some lessons; Elizabeth is initially quite close to Anna and takes the child under her wing.
The narrative moves about quite a lot as the reader is introduced to friends of Thomas, the Nortons, who as diplomats are in Warsaw when war breaks out. Their story runs as a backdrop to the main story and has little emotional impact except for their work saving the Polish people. There are chapters about Roberta, Anna's mother, who joins the war effort by working for the BBC. Anna's father Lewis is already training as a soldier and has very little presence until the end of the book.
Nothing at Ashton house is quite what it seems. Elizabeth is frantic to have a child and drinks heavily each time she has her period. Surrounded by children but childless, it's inevitable that there will be a tragedy before long. Thomas immerses himself in the children and turns a blind eye to his wife's lovers. In turn, Roberta also finds herself getting swept off her feet in both her job and private life. The theme starts to become one of disloyalty and betrayal, made all the more poignant by the brevity of any relationship in the middle of a war. Thomas turns his eyes and heart to a young teacher from the poorer area of London. Ruth Weir starts to take on both character and meaning in a story that has too many themes to gel it together.
Anna is the link to each story. She becomes enmeshed in the secrets around her and stays, at heart, a very lonely child. Stripped of her identity she doesn't make friends easily. She misses her mother who visits only briefly, telling Anna that bombing has made London too dangerous for her to return. It will be the last time she sees her mother alive.
I found the book interesting but it never quite lived up to all the possible themes that could and should have been developed or dropped altogether. The characters are either stilted or emotionally unstable. It's very obvious in Thomas's lukewarm courtship of Ruth that he is unable to sustain a deep relationship, though the passion of his wife is far greater, especially when she cries for each lost chance for children. Even then I found the emotional outbursts somewhat over the top. Maybe Anna could redeem the story, her loneliness is dreadful and her reactions to separation tragic.
There was just enough of Anna's story to hold the reader's interest. The first part of the book ends in the only possible way, hearts and lives are broken. Lewis is invalided from the army and war in time to rescue Anna, but as the second part unfolds, the damage has been done already and it's Anna who never truly recovers.
I can't say I did more than drift through the story. I wanted to like it and thought it might be my own emotions unable to kindle. Perhaps the understatement of the book was down to the perceptions of the restrained middle-class. I could easily have identified more with the working-class poor, who took such heavy casualties in the war. Maybe that restraint was the antidote to the mind-numbing losses that often pepper war stories. There were times when I did feel tears spring to my eyes, but it wasn't enough. The characters were not my people. I didn't believe in them.
So a very reluctant three stars from me. I wanted to like it; it was the Writer's debut, after all.
I didn't buy the book, but it's still available on Amazon.Prices vary, but I'd suggest buying a second-hand copy.
This review is of the paperback book "The Very Thought of You" by Rosie Alison.
The book is based around the children who were evacuated to safer locations in World War Two to protect them from enemy action, in this case, it revolves around a London girl called Anna Sands, who was relocated to a couple in Yorkshire.
Anna, who is just eight years old, is separated from her mother, which inevitably puts a terrible strain on both of them. When Anna gets to Yorkshire however to be with her new guardians, Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton, she finds herself deeply involved with the complexities of their characters.
Thomas Ashton was formerly a diplomat, now in a wheelchair, but he has had large numbers of experiences in his life. The Ashtons live in a large manor house, suitably named Ashton Park, and are looking after over fifty evacuees in total. Another important character in the story is Ruth, the teacher of the children, who is a difficult and harsh character who becomes quite entwined in the story.
I personally enjoyed reading this story, although it isn't the sort of book that I usually read. Indeed, I purchased it as it was so cheap from Amazon, price mentioned below, and I was pleased that I did read it. I especially enjoyed the beginning of the book, the development of the characters and the emotion of the evacuation and move to Yorkshire were well written in my view.
However, I found the second half of the book to be less appealing. Without giving too much of the plot away, the end of the book focuses on Anna's later life and how it developed, and this section wasn't written as fluidly, and I didn't feel that it flowed as well as it could.
I also found that the book was a little heavy on emotion, and a little light on character development in places, and indeed, some of the character's dialogue were quite shallow and flat in places in my opinion, and the book didn't flow quite as well.
However, with the amount of emotion in the book, and with some good writing describing the locations in the book and the characters, the book really did have lots of atmosphere, and it was a very believable and engaging title.
The book retails for 7.99 pounds, but is currently available new from Amazon for 3.20 pounds including postage. If you're happy with a second hand copy these are available from sites such as eBay and Amazon for a little less.
The book was published in 2009 by Alma Books and is 348 pages long. The book's ISBN is 9781846881008.
In summary, this is a charming and well written book, which is full of emotion throughout, although in places, maybe just a little too much. The first half of the book I found to be very strong, the second half a bit too fast moving without enough depth of character. However, it's an intriguing book, and given the cheap price of the book from Amazon, definitely worth a look.