There’s always something a little special about sharing a review on publication day, and The Poppy Field by Deborah Carr was a book I was particularly looking forward to. Although many will be familiar with the books of Georgina Troy, and her new incarnation as Ella Drummond (read more here), I suspect rather fewer stumbled across the last – and until now, the only – book she published under her own name of Deborah Carr. That book was Broken Faces (review here), and I enjoyed it so very much that it made my Books of the Year list back in 2016 – so I was quite delighted to see that she’d again decided to write again about the First World War, to mark the anniversary of its end. Published by HarperImpulse, the book is available from today for kindle: the paperback will follow on 27th December. My thanks to Rachel’s Random Resources for inviting me to join the blog tour and for providing my advance reading e-copy.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
Young nurse, Gemma, is struggling with the traumas she has witnessed through her job in the NHS. Needing to escape from it all, Gemma agrees to help renovate a rundown farmhouse in Doullens, France, a town near the Somme. There, in a boarded-up cupboard, wrapped in old newspapers, is a tin that reveals the secret letters and heartache of Alice Le Breton, a young volunteer nurse who worked in a casualty clearing station near the front line.
Set in the present day and during the horrifying years of the war, both woman discover deep down the strength and courage to carry on in even the most difficult of times. Through Alice’s words and her unfailing love for her sweetheart at the front, Gemma learns to truly live again.
This is a beautifully written epic historical novel that will take your breath away.
I always love a story with a dual timeline and, although I may have read many others triggered by the discovery of long-lost letters, I really did enjoy this one. I will confess though that the present day story of Gemma, with her tragic past and need for a fresh start, managing the farmhouse renovation at Doullens, didn’t capture my imagination quite as much as Alice’s wartime story did. Although a lovely romantic story, very well told, I would have rather liked a tad more depth, more obvious evidence of the trauma she was recovering from – but then I guess it might just have detracted from the darker parts of the historical thread and lessened the “light relief” the thread delivered. There were though some clever links and “echoes” between the two stories – and I particularly liked the way the stories were linked by location, especially the poppy field itself that has such deep meaning for both lead characters.
The historical thread is really excellent – full of well-researched detail about the realities of the human impact of war, with a nice balance between Alice’s personal story and the day-to-day lives and experiences of those dealing with the constant influx of casualties. Although told in the third person, Alice has a clear and distinctive voice – she’s kind and compassionate, feisty and brave, knows her own mind, and I really liked her. The supporting cast isn’t drawn in quite the same detail, but that’s just fine – this is very much Alice’s story, and she draws your eye (and engages your emotions) throughout.
The hospital scenes were extremely well done, capturing the worsening condition of the casualties brought in with the introduction of mustard gas, the problems caused by the lack of sanitation, the sad loss of men despite injuries that appeared to be minor, the efforts to provide care with inadequate accommodation and insufficient resources. And I liked the fact that those caring sometimes cried – at the scale of loss, and the limitations on the care they were able to give. Against this vivid backdrop, there’s a sad and rather beautiful love story, its progress made so much more difficult by the stifling rules and regulations. The ending, I thought, was quite perfect – suitably emotional, but nicely uplifting too, with a message of hope for the future.
I was quite fascinated by some of the historical detail. I never realised that relationships between patients and nurses were so strictly governed – and this was the first time I’d read about messages conveyed from the front through the way stamps were stuck on envelopes (I researched a little – you can find more here on the language of stamps). And I had no idea that the victims of gassing were tethered, their arms strapped to their beds – horrific, and particularly moving. The book also brings home – with some force – how close to the front the casualty clearing stations were, the reverberations prolonging the distress of those impacted by it.
There was a great deal about this book that I really enjoyed – and it’s certainly a very fitting tribute to the many who lost their lives, and to those who tried to save them against the most dreadful odds.
About the author
Deborah Carr lives on the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands with her husband, two children and three rescue dogs. She became interested in books set in WW1 when researching her great-grandfather’s time as a cavalryman in the 17th 21st Lancers.
She is part of ‘The Blonde Plotters’ writing group and was Deputy Editor on the online review site, Novelicious.com for seven years. Her debut historical romance, Broken Faces, is set in WW1 and was runner-up in the 2012 Good Housekeeping Novel Writing Competition and given a ‘special commendation’ in the Harry Bowling Prize that year. The Poppy Field is her second historical novel.