I’m delighted to be joining Bookouture‘s Books-on-tour today, sharing my publication day review of The Secret Diary by Anna Stuart: it’s now available via Amazon for kindle, in paperback and as an audiobook, and also via Apple, for Kobo and through Google. My thanks to Bookouture for inviting me to join the tour and for my advance reading e-copy (provided via netgalley), and to Sarah Hardy for her ongoing support.
I don’t know if you’ve read Anna Stuart’s books before, but I remember how very much I enjoyed the wonderful Bonnie and Stan (you’ll find my review here), which I had no hesitation in including in my Books of the Year list in 2019. And then there was Four Minutes to Save a Life (review here) – I loved that one too, and yes, another place in my 2020 Books of the Year list. Anna has also written many historical novels as Joanna Courtney, and, more recently, a lockdown love story, Just the Two of Us, writing as Jo Wilde – but her move to Bookouture brought yet another change of direction with The Berlin Zookeeper (review here), and it was a change I most certainly enjoyed. So, another book, and this time a dual timeline with a post-war focus – I was really looking forward to this one…
Two women. One house. And a wartime secret that spans decades…
Norfolk, 1945: Only a few months ago Nancy Jones was fighting for her country as a gunner girl. Now she’s struggling to adjust to her responsibilities as a gamekeeper’s wife. After a whirlwind romance, Nancy is deeply in love with her handsome husband Joe but there is still so much they don’t know about each other. When a secret from Nancy’s war years threatens to resurface, will the terrible truth about the worst night of her life shatter their new marriage?
Norfolk, 2019: Devastated by the sudden loss of her husband, Lorna Haynes escapes to the beautiful but crumbling Gamekeeper’s Cottage. There, she stumbles upon a locked room. When she enters, it’s like going back in time. A soldier’s uniform hangs on the back of the door, the flowery wallpaper still intact, the spindle of the record player frozen and ready to play. At the back of the room, Lorna discovers a red, leather-bound diary in a hidden compartment of a desk drawer.
As Lorna battles with heartache, she takes comfort in reading the ink-stained words. Turning the pages of the old book, she learns of the incredible bravery of the woman who lived in the house decades before her. And discovers a shocking wartime secret that will change the course of her own life…
Fans of The Nightingale, The Alice Network, and Lilac Girls will love this unforgettable, poignant tale of love, loss and courage during the darkest days of war.
Whenever I read a really well-told story with a dual timeline, I feel compelled to say that it’s always something I particularly enjoy – and my goodness, I certainly enjoyed this one.
Devastated by the loss of husband Matt, Lorna and her two young sons decide to leave Norwich and all its difficult reminders behind for a while, and spend the summer with her mother – now married to ex-GP David, they live at Latham in a beautiful gamekeeper’s cottage with an annex where the young family will be able to have a little space when they need it. The annex is a wonderful surprise – frozen in time, furnished in 1940s style complete with original radio on the fireplace and blousy wallpaper in the bedroom, and with all its original furnishings. Lorna has a bit of a passion for old furniture, and finds the hidden drawer within the dressing table that she knows to be a common feature – but she doesn’t expect to find a hidden diary from 1945, and exploring its fascinating story (along with the loving attention of David and her mother) is what sustains her as she follows her journey to heal herself.
The diary is written by Nancy, newly married and having moved in with her in-laws after her wartime life as a gunner girl, a time fraught with danger as she worked as part of a group of four women who spotted enemy aircraft and prepared the guns that the men would fire to bring them down. Her husband promised that she could join him as a gamekeeper, but his family have other ideas about an appropriate life for a woman, and instead she finds herself frustratingly tied to the chores around the cottage and the more interesting life she’d hoped for out of her grasp. Her wartime years were a time of strong friendships, and all but one the girls have kept in touch – and there’s a mystery to be uncovered about the fate of the missing member of the team, and it’s something Nancy chose to conceal by tearing out and hiding the final pages of the diary, feeling it was a story that wasn’t hers to share.
When I say how much I enjoy a dual timeline, it does rather depend on both stories being equally strong – and I was very happy about the balance within this book. Laura’s grief is palpable and very real, and I loved her relationships both with her young sons and with her mother and David – her pursuit of the full story behind the diary and her path to healing drives the story, and I really enjoyed her involvement in the restoration of Langham Dome, where the practising wartime gunners were able to hone their skills. Nancy’s story is compelling, a wonderful slice of social history I’m not sure I’ve come across in a book before – I’d never given much thought to how very difficult women must have found it to slip back into their expected roles as wives and mothers, stepping aside to let the men pick up their former roles, and that struggle between more traditional views and the thirst for freedom is exceptionally well handled.
The characters are excellent – Nancy has a wonderful feistiness about her as she attempts to kick against convention, and there are some lovely moments where you find yourself cheering and urging her on when she makes her stands. Another one I particularly loved was David – his care for Lorna and the boys earns him the titles of “Dad” and “grandad”, the love with which he envelops them in rather sharp contrast to the austerity of the family joined by Nancy. The book’s emotional content really is beautifully handled – Lorna’s sense of loss is never far below the surface and makes your heart ache at times, but Nancy’s frustration with her lot and thwarted dreams for the future are equally palpable.
This is by no means the only book I’ve read that hinges on the finding of a diary, but the device is particularly well employed – the links between the two storylines are cleverly done, the transitions between the stories smooth and easy, the storytelling quite excellent, and the read compelling as we hope for a resolution to the remaining mystery behind the diary’s missing pages. And it’s one of those books that amply shows the depth of the author’s research, but wears it lightly as she recreates a very authentic slice of social history – the historical notes that end the book are simply fascinating, and every bit as readable as the story itself.
This a story that focuses on transitions – Lorna’s journey to recovery and future happiness, Nancy’s to a life that matches her post-war expectations – but all wrapped up in two engrossing stories. Highly recommended – I loved it.
About the author
Anna Stuart lives in Derbyshire with her campervan-mad husband, two hungry teenagers and a slightly loopy dog. She was hooked on books from the moment she first opened one in her cot, so is thrilled to now have several of her own to her name. Having studied English literature at Cambridge University, she took an enjoyable temporary trip into the ‘real world’ as a factory planner, before returning to her first love and becoming an author. History has also always fascinated her. Living in an old house with a stone fireplace, she often wonders who sat around it before her and is intrigued by how actively the past is woven into the present, something she likes to explore in her novels.
Anna loves the way that writing lets her ‘try on’ so many different lives, but her favourite part of the job is undoubtedly hearing from readers. You can reach her on Facebook or Twitter, and she also has a website.