I hold my hand up and admit that this was my first Sarah Walters novel. I’d enjoyed the tv adaptations of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, but somehow, never got round to following them up on paper. So when my good friends Ruth and Annie gifted me this novel for my birthday, just as my classes were finishing, I didn’t add it to my TBR shelf, I put it ready to start once my decks were cleared.
What a gift it was. Beautifully written, intriguing characters, and a neat piece of plotting. The story opens in London, in the summer of 1947. The weather is hot, many of the buildings are still war damaged, and people are struggling to fit into their peace-time roles.
Just as I was beginning to grasp who the central characters were, and how they fitted together, that segment of the story closed. The new segment jumped me back to London in 1944, and that terrible destruction of properties, and lives. Again, no backstory, instead the four lives are revealed by their actions and relationships.
The third time slip was to London in 1941. Here several of the characters intersect for the first time.
The events that happen in this section are going to lead each of them to become the person I met when I opened the first page of the novel. Had Walter’s written this story chronologically I wouldn’t have guessed the outcome, I might even have objected to some of the connections. But experienced in rewind, the eventual outcome for each choice feels inevitable.
That’s worth thinking about. Truth, we are often warned, is stranger than fiction. In other words, the improbable can happen in real life with surprising frequency, and those tales make some fascinating pieces of journalism. But in the world of stories readers require cause and the effect. That’s what the backstory provided.
So the reverse chronology made me work. As the narrator uncovered each layer of the experiences that formed the people I met in the first part of the novel, I rounded out my understanding of them.
I’ve seen this reverse telling before. I wonder if Walters read The Long View, by Elizabeth Jane Howard? I’d like to think she did.