Review – I Can’t Begin To Tell You by Elizabeth Buchan

By | September 13, 2014

Denmark, 1940. War has come and everyone must choose a side.

For British-born Kay Eberstern, living on her husband Bror’s country estate, the Nazi invasion and occupation of her adopted country is a time of terrible uncertainty and inner conflict.

With Bror desperate to preserve the legacy of his family home, even if it means co-existing with the enemy, Kay knows she cannot do the same. Lured by British Intelligence into a covert world of resistance and sabotage, her betrayal of Bror is complete as she puts her family in danger.

Tasked with protecting an enigmatic SOE agent, a man who cannot even tell her his name, Kay learns the art of subterfuge. From this moment on, she must risk everything for the sake of this stranger – a stranger who becomes entangled in her world in ways she never expected.

Caught on opposing sides of a war that has ripped apart a continent, will Kay and Bror ever find their way back to one another?

I often find that I struggle with novels about the Resistance – I blame too many Sunday afternoon war films and a surfeit of Allo Allo.  I struggled with Rachel Hore’s The Gathering Storm because of it – it also stopped me being as enthusiastic as others about that particular thread in Jojo Moyes’ The Girl You Left Behind.  And I really thought I was going to have to wrestle with this one too – until I passed the first fifty pages, and realised I was getting really involved and turning the pages faster and faster.

The setting is one I haven’t come across before – the whole Danish wartime experience really comes to life, and is plainly exceptionally well researched.  The research also shines through in the lives of the codebreakers and listeners back in England, the petty politics hampering operations, and the training of the SOE agents.  I learned things I never knew before, about the way in which the “fist” of an agent could be recognised by listeners, the use of words from poems as codes (despite recognised weaknesses) and was fascinated by the unit dealing with the “indecipherables”.  

At the start, I did find it a little difficult to warm to the characters, but I soon got caught up in their story.  Kay Eberstern was born in England, but has been married to Bror for long enough to have two grown up children.  When war breaks out they have a comfortable life, living on a substantial estate: following the occupation, Bror takes the path of least resistance by pledging his support to the Nazis.  They find themselves entertaining high ranking German officials in their home, while Kay and her daughter Tanne become increasingly attracted by and involved in the growing resistance movement.  The story is gripping and exciting – from the moment that they hide an SOE agent in their pigeon loft, their lives will never be the same again.

It’s an excellent story about love and loyalty, quite thrilling as the story develops, and it all builds to a devastating crescendo with a quite perfect ending that takes your breath away. If the characters failed to get my emotional involvement at the start, things had certainly come full circle by the time I came to the end.  It’s an exciting read, exercises your every emotion, and its impact remains with you for a long time after you finish.  It’s the meticulous research and detailed background that make it something very different and so thoroughly engrossing.  I’ve read earlier novels by Elizabeth Buchan, and this is quite a departure from her earlier style and subject matter – I really did enjoy it very much, and look forward to seeing what she turns her hand to next.  

I Can’t Begin To Tell You by Elizabeth Buchan was published by Penguin Books UK/Michael Joseph on 28 August.  My thanks to netgalley and the publishers for my advance reading e-copy.

Elizabeth Buchan began her career as a blurb writer for Penguin Books – excellent training for an infant writer as it necessitated reading widely through the Penguin list, fiction and non-fiction, in order to encapsulate what a book was about.   She later became a fiction editor at Random House, in her spare time she had co-authored an adventure game book for children and also written a children’s biography of Beatrix Potter, but decided after a couple of years that she should do what she wished to do: write.

In 1994, she became a full-time writer. Her novel Consider the Lily won the 1994 Novel of the Year Award from the Romantic Novelists’ Association, and she was elected its eighteenth Chairman (1995-1997). She has sat on the committee for the Society of Authors and was Chairman of the judges for the 1997 Betty Trask Award and a judge for the 1997 Whitbread Awards. She also writes reviews for the main national newspapers including The Times and the Mail on Sunday. Her bestselling novel Revenge of the Middle Aged Woman has been made into a television film for CBS. She lives in London.