How letters can make history sing – and what will historians of the future do?

Review: Vivien Horler

Last Letter Home, by Rachel Hore (Simon & Schuster)

last letter homeAs recently as 1990 I was still writing and receiving letters, and I have my half of the correspondence to this day. But who prints out and keeps important emails?

Novels based on the discovery of old letters, or on the consequences of a letter that was never delivered, will now need to be relegated to historical fiction.

I suppose Last Letter Home is technically historical fiction, half of it taking place during World War II which is still within living memory, but only just.

There are two narrative threads here, the story of author and historian Briony Wood, set in the present, and her fascination with the lives of a group of people in Norfolk before and during the war.

Briony and friends go on holiday to an Italian village which turns out to be where her grandfather was stationed for part of the war. Her subsequent interest in the area’s recent history prompts one of the villagers to give her a projector and a couple of rolls of film.

The film is of British soldiers in the area, and one of them bears such a close resemblance to Briony’s brother she realises he has to be her grandfather. She goes back to the villager to find out more about the film’s provenance, and this time is handed a sheaf of letters, all written by a woman called Sarah in Norfolk and posted to Private Paul Hartmann via the British Forces Post Office.

The villager tells Briony to keep the letters and perhaps return them to the families of Sarah and Paul in England.

And so Briony is launched on a hunt to tease out the stories of Paul and Sarah and what became of them, and their link to her grandfather.

The story dips back to 1938, when Sarah, her widowed mother and sister arrive in England after years in India. Sarah is interested in gardening, and becomes friendly with Paul, who works as an under-gardener at the nearby manor house.

Paul, however, is half German and something of a refugee; and with the rumours of war flying, is not popular in the village. In particular Ivor, the son of Paul’s boss, dislikes Paul, although this may have something to do with the fact he too fancies Sarah.

The novel is rescued from the genre of chick-lit by the fascinating war background and the experiences of Paul, Ivor and Briony’s grandfather during the North Africa campaign and the Allied fight for Italy.

It also has several unexpected twists which lead to a satisfying and somewhat astonishing conclusion.

Rachel Hore beautifully evokes both the English and Italian countryside, as well as war-ravaged London.

If I do have a mild criticism it is that much of the information Briony uncovers falls into her lap. I’ve done some family historical research and it’s not easy. Yet Briony is forever finding packets of letters in boxes under beds or being sent useful documents found in an old relative’s papers. She would have a lot more trouble if she were exploring the lives and loves of people in our digital age.

  • This review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on June 24. 2018.





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