British historical fiction about the Women’s Land Army
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist.
“The Victory Garden” by Rhys Bowen is a historical fiction novel set in the UK during World War I. Emily Bryce has lived a sheltered and privileged life, and is prevented by her parents from becoming a nurse. However, when she meets an Australian pilot on a chaperoned hospital visit with her mother, she is inspired to do more to help out with the war efforts. Too late to study nursing, Emily instead joins the Women’s Land Army. After helping out farmers with their harvest, Emily is reassigned to a large estate to help tame the garden of an elderly widow and moves in with friends to an abandoned cottage near the herb garden. However, when Emily finds her future suddenly very uncertain and approaching at speed, she finds solace in journals left behind by a woman whose life seems to closely parallel her own.
I’ve read a few of Bowen’s books now, and this one is one of my favourites so far. I have a vague memory of learning about the Women’s Land Army when I was in school and the topic being completely bland. This story brings this real turning point in women’s rights to life and Emily is a fantastic character to explore issues of class, the value of women’s work, stigma around single mothers and family rejection. I especially enjoyed Emily’s time living, boarding and working with an incredibly diverse range of women and helping to prove that women can do the same work that men could do. I also really liked that while there were some romantic elements to the story, it certainly was not the main part of the book.
I think that while the first half of the book was incredibly engaging, I found the second half of the book a little slower. Isolated and unable to leave, the second half of the book involves a lot more introspection and a little bit of a mystery which was quite a different pace to the immersive feminist history of the first half. I did feel like the ending was a little bit of a deus ex machina, and that perhaps the book could have used a little more conflict or drama towards the end.
This is a great topic for a historical novel, and I really enjoyed putting myself in the shoes of a ‘land girl’ and reading about such a pivotal point in history for women. It was also a very easy read.
The Victory Garden: A Novel
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist, and this is actually my second review of a book by Rhys Bowen.
“The Tuscan Child” by Rhys Bowen is a historical fiction novel that spans and interlaces two eras: World War II and the 1970s. In 1944, a British pilot shot down by the Germans makes an emergency landing in a small Tuscan village. Hiding out in a bombed and abandoned monastery, Hugo relies on the generosity of local woman Sophia to survive. Thirty years later, Joanna has returned to the sad remains of her family’s lost manor to arrange her father’s funeral. While going through his things, she discovers hints of a love left behind in Italy. Joanna decides to try to learn more about her mysterious father’s past and travel to Tuscany herself.
Bowen’s strength is clearly in recounting World War II history and, like her novel “In Farleigh Field”, she excels at capturing the decline of the English country house. The tension between the shame and the inevitability of the loss of the family home is explored in a really interesting way, and I found the Joanna’s interactions with the principal of the girls’ school that took over Langley Hall especially fascinating.
The parts of the book set in Tuscany had a very different flavour. Although we don’t see much of the Tuscan countryside through Hugo’s eyes, the his relationship with Sophia is incredibly intense. When Joanna arrives in the village, I felt like although she quickly becomes immersed, her experience in is much less internal and the reader gets to enjoy a broader sense of Tuscan life and culture (inspired by Bowen’s own experiences).
However, there really are two very different stories in this book: Joanna’s sad and difficult English experience, and the much more mysterious Tuscan story of her father’s. While this divide is appropriate given the divide within Hugo himself, I think at times the transition between the two stories is a bit difficult to bridge.
Whether you are interested in romance, historical fiction, World War II or travel writing, I think most people will get something out of this story.
I received an advanced reading copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. I don’t read many mysteries but I’m always eager to try new things and with autumn just beginning here, a novel set in a British manor was just the thing to cosy up to on a weekend.
“In Farleigh Field” by Rhys Bowen is a novel about an upper class British family during the 1940s. Lord Westerham, his wife Lady Westerham and three of their daughters have had to relinquish part of their stately home Farleigh Place to local soldiers. Their third daughter Pamela is working a secret government job at Bletchly Park and nobody has heard from their second daughter Margot, who was designing clothes in France, for a long time. When a young London boy Alfie who is billeted at the gamekeeper’s house stumbles across a grisly discovery, he and Lady Phoebe, Westerham’s youngest, rush to tell the authorities. The mysterious body draws family friend and the son of the local Vicar Ben Cresswell back to Farleigh on a top secret mission. Ben grew up rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Westerhams, and although he finds an old flame rekindled, he discovers that maybe he doesn’t know the people in those circles as well as he thought he did.
This book is a great little romp perfect for a bit of weekend escapism. I’m loathe to say it because I’m sure the comparison has been made over and over, but if you enjoy period dramas like Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs, especially against the social equaliser background of the second world war, you’ll most certainly enjoy this. This story is another snapshot that adds to the mosaic of the British war experience and the remnants of the English gentry. Bowen has an easy, fluid style of writing that lets the story speak for itself. Her dialogue is particularly enjoyable, and her foray into M15, codebreaking and double agents is compelling reading. I particularly liked her treatment of women and romance in this story, and felt that she gave a real sense of the desire of young women of the times to gain useful knowledge and skills to do their part. I also liked how she handled the changing social attitudes towards sex and explored the diversity of sexual expression without judgment.
This is Bowen’s first standalone novel and it is a very enjoyable read that is clever enough to be engaging, but simple enough to relax into.