The cover caught my attention – how could it not?
And when I read the opening paragraphs I was smitten.
“I clean books. I dust their spines, their pages, sometimes one at a time; painstaking, throat-catching work. I find things hidden in books: dried flowers, locks of hair, tickets, labels, receipt, invoices, photographs, postcards, all manner of cards. I find letters, unpublished works by the ordinary, the anguished, the illiterate. Clumsily written or eloquent, they are love letters, everyday letters, secret letters and mundane letters talking about fruit and babies and tennis matches, from people signing themselves as Majorie or Jean.
My boss, Phillip, long used to such finds, is blasé and whatever he finds, he places aside for me to look at. You can’t keep everything, he reminds me. And, of course, he is right. But I can’t bring myself to dispose of these snippets and snapshots of lives that once meant (or still do mean) so much.”
That was lovely, and those snapshots of lives and the books that they came from were threaded through the story. But they were just wrapping around the biggest story.
Roberta – at her father’s request – was going through her grandmother’s things – her grandmother was over a hundred years old, she was physically and mentally frail, and she had moved to a care home. In a suitcase, labelled with the unfamiliar name of Mrs Sinclair, she found a letter that made her realise that much that her grandmother told her about what had happened to her in the war was untrue.
And so Roberta’s grandmother – Dorothea – had the biggest story. She had married against her family’s wishes, she was unhappy, but she was too proud to admit that she had made a mistake, and so her neighbours saw her as proud and aloof. She unbent a little when her husband went away to war, and when land girls came to share her home and work her land. But it was a plane crash in the field behind her house that changed things; because it brought Squadron Leader Jan Pietrykowski into her life, and he drew her out of herself, and made her realise that life held more possibilities than she had ever realised.
But events, and a momentous decision, change things, and Dorothea is left with a secret she can never tell …..
The story moved so naturally between past and present and that everything that happened – some things that I expected and some things that I didn’t – grew out of the characters and their situations. It was engaging, and it was very cleverly done.
I particularly loved the echoes of the grandmother’s life that I saw in her granddaughter’s. They were so very alike. Neither was easy to warm to, but as I read I came to understand, and to care.
The wartime story is the stronger of two, and I did rather wish that it had been opened out more and the contemporary story pared back.
I would have loved to have learned more about Jan, and the squadron made up of men who had escaped occupied Poland and come to England to fight.
The story was told beautifully, sensitively, and with real understanding; but for all that this was a lovely book there is a voice in my head insisting that there was a better and lovelier book in the material.
I was disappointing in the ending: it felt rushed and the restraint that had made much of the story special seemed to be lost as all of the loose ends were firmly and decisively tied up. The story didn’t need that, and life isn’t that tidy.
But I don’t want to end on a negative note, because I found a lot to love in this book. And it’s those things – especially Dorothea’s story and the lovely bookish wrapping that Roberta gave it that I will remember.