I’m delighted today to be sharing my review of Last Letter Home by Rachel Hore, published by Simon & Schuster on 22nd March, available now in hardback and for kindle (thanks to the publishers and netgalley for my reading e-copy). The paperback will follow in August, and I can already picture it in that “bestseller” top row in my favourite bookshops.
I’ve been a massive fan of Rachel Hore’s books for such a long time – her style is so readable, and the dual time aspect of all her books is always something I enjoy. I first discovered her writing (many years ago!) with the wonderful The Memory Garden, and I loved all the other early books too – The Glass Painter’s Daughter, The Dream House and A Place of Secrets (my favourite, I think). Most of my reading of Rachel’s books was “before the blog”, but you will find reviews on Being Anne of the excellent The Silent Tide and (a short review) of A Week in Paris. But it’s really been far too long since I read one of her books, and from its opening pages I could tell that this one was another book I was going to love…
On holiday with friends, young historian Briony Andrews becomes fascinated with a wartime story of a ruined villa in the hills behind Naples. There is a family connection: her grandfather had been a British soldier during the Italian campaign of 1943 in that very area. Handed a bundle of letters that were found after the war, Briony sets off to trace the fate of their sender, Sarah Bailey.
In 1939, Sarah returns with her mother and sister from India, in mourning, to take up residence in the Norfolk village of Westbury. There she forms a firm friendship with Paul Hartmann, a young German who has found sanctuary in the local manor house, Westbury Hall. With the outbreak of war, conflicts of loyalty in Westbury deepen.
When, 70 years later, Briony begins to uncover Sarah and Paul’s story, she encounters resentments and secrets still tightly guarded. What happened long ago in the villa in the shadow of Vesuvius, she suspects, still has the power to give terrible pain…
Some of the reviews I’ve seen of this book mention that they prefer the wartime story to the modern thread, but I really don’t agree – I thought they were both equally strong, and the transitions between them quite seamless. I really liked Briony, with her fragility, awkwardness and personal issues, her friendships, her encounters and sometimes challenging relationships, and her drive to find out the story behind the discovered letters.
The wartime story is something a little different – Sarah’s friendship with German-born Paul develops quite beautifully, with the shared interest in gardening, his “outsider” status, the obvious issues as war approaches, and the story focuses both on those left behind and the horrors of warfare on the Italian front. The wartime scenes are exceptionally well done – vivid and more graphic than expected, moving and emotional.
I always enjoy a book with a strong sense of place, and I loved this book’s Norfolk setting and the focus on Westbury Hall and its surroundings – its glorious past, its wartime changes and its modern face, converted into the inevitable luxury apartments but retaining the links with its past. The descriptions are superb – I’d love to stay in the gardener’s cottage, sit with a book and glass of wine in the gorgeous walled garden. The Italian settings too – in wartime and the present day – are plainly well researched and vividly drawn.
The story of secrets and simmering resentments is totally engrossing – this is a substantial book at 560 pages, but it never felt like it as the pages turned easily, drawing you into the wonderful story. I very much enjoyed this one.
About the author
Rachel Hore worked in London publishing for many years before moving with her family to Norwich, where she teaches publishing at UEA. She is married to writer D. J. Taylor and they have three sons. Visit Rachel at her website, or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.