Last Letter Home – Rachel Hore
On holiday with friends, young historian Briony Wood 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.
This book is like glue, it doesn’t matter what you want to do, you can’t put it down. I read it in two sittings BUT only because I had to sleep in between. Some bits I read twice, which I’ll explain later.
Compelling, romantic, and mysterious, it’s a thoroughly fascinating tale that moves between two time-periods, present day and World War 2, revealing some interesting relationships in both. This appealed to the historian in me, and it highlights a much-ignored subject, those Germans who lived here, served, and fought for this country. Few people know that some 10,000 German and Austrian nationals volunteered to fight for Britain.
These won’t spoil the story, but I had some ‘niggles’. Let me get those out of the way first. Research historians enjoy the chase. In fact we LOVE the chase; hunting down information, solving the riddles, answering the questions, there is nothing quite like the thrill of it. So that being the case I had some issues with Briony as a research historian with a PhD, and why I had to read certain parts twice, in case I had missed something. Given that her specialism is supposed to be World War 2, I found it difficult to believe that she struggled at certain points about what to do, and at another had a museum assistant to direct her to what amounts to the county record office. No doubt some of her research was done ‘off stage’ as it were, but when she’s questioning herself, I was mentally shouting things like ‘look on bloody Ancestry’ or ‘go to the National Archives for heaven’s sake’. This is stuff she should and would know. A missing part for me is how she researched Sarah and Paul’s story, and I was disappointed that the author didn’t give us more of that.
None of this will spoil the enjoyment of an otherwise great story, or more properly, two great stories.
Rachel Hore writes the historic sections exceptionally well. Her subtle composition reflects the social divisions of the 1930s and how they work under the surface, while clearly highlighting the awful calculating snobbery and conceit of some of the characters. She recreates the period splendidly and doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant and ugly aspects of war and society.
I liked Briony, though occasionally her lack of confidence became very annoying, but I couldn’t like her friend Aruna no matter how I tried. There were moments when I wondered how and why they were friends though towards the end there is some resolution on that front. Lavender, her step-mother develops beautifully, as does Briony’s relationship with her. The men in her life are not perfect, indeed far from it, but they are real in as much as they are fleshed out, flawed, and recognisable.
Sarah and Paul are fantastic characters. The chapters dealing with their story had me glued to every word on every page, and they raise the book from an average to an outstanding. The beautifully paced journey of their relationship makes for great reading, and the whole mystery element makes this a page-turner. At certain parts you will find yourself anxious to find out what’s going on and so rush to read, yet at others you’ll enjoy and relish the slower pace that lets the story unfold gently. The ‘will they, won’t they’ conundrum will have you rapidly reading and page turning through secrets, heartbreak, and tightly bound emotions, all of which builds to an end that is both bitter and sweet at the same time.