The beautiful, Ravilious-style cover of this debut novel is what initially compelled me to pick it up when I saw it sitting on the shelf in Daunt Books. From the illustration, it looked just my cup of tea; rural setting, vaguely middlebrow in tone – and when I read the blurb, about two women coming together in unusual circumstances to work on a farm during WWII, I was sold. Last week I read it in two sittings, devouring the unfussily lyrical prose, and finding myself utterly absorbed in the world of Elsie Boston and Rene Hargreaves, two unconventional women brought together by the chaos of war and somehow finding within each other the peace that had eluded them all their lives.
Elsie Boston has been left alone to run the family farm, Starlight, after her large family of brothers and sisters has disbanded. Her sisters have gone to live in towns and cities, stultified by the boredom of country life, and her brothers are dead, killed in the first war. An odd fish, uncomfortable in the company of others and unsure how to relate to them, Elsie is considered an eccentric by her neighbours, and largely left to herself. However, the farm is large and help hard to find with a war on, and so pushed to act against her will by sheer necessity, she applies for a Land Girl to come and live with her. Widow Rene Hargreaves signs up to be a Land Girl for a chance to escape her life in Manchester. When she arrives at Starlight, she throws herself into the work on the land, and quickly makes friends in the village with her warm, open and friendly manner. Rene seems to have a way with Elsie, unlocking her from her prison of shyness, and the women quickly form a deep friendship built upon a seemingly innate understanding of the other. They settle into a comfortable domestic routine, relishing their days working in harmony with one another on Elsie’s beloved land, and their cosy evenings listening to plays on the wireless. The war raging in the world outside seems too far away to touch them, and for a while, their friendship seems to have woven a protection about them, giving both the peace and satisfaction they were unknowingly searching for. However, in the background, storm clouds are brewing. Rene is not all she says she is; the past she has left behind in Manchester is far more complex than she had led Elsie to suspect. And a neighbour, keen to take revenge on Elsie for spurning his advances, is looking to get his hands on Starlight and push Elsie and Rene off the land altogether.
I won’t say any more about the plot for fear of ruining it, as there is a surprising twist half way through, but this is a truly wonderful novel that is unexpected in so many ways. There is much left unsaid, and unexplored; glimpses are given of the women’s pasts and their relationship with one another that can be interpreted as the reader wishes. Were Elsie and Rene lovers, or was their contentment grounded in the satisfaction of a deep platonic bond? There is plenty of evidence for both readings, and it is up to us to decide what we feel best fits their characters. The period details are marvellous, and the depictions of countryside life and the characters found there are beautifully and realistically drawn. It is a thoughtful, intriguing and unusual tale of two women who fought against social and moral expectations to live a life that gave them the fulfilment their hearts longed for, carrying the weight of guilt, sorrow and blame along with them as they navigated a path through the barriers that stood in their way. What makes it even more powerful is the knowledge that Rachel Malik based this tale on the story of her own grandmother’s life, which can be read here (warning – this article does provide plot spoilers). It makes you wonder how many more extraordinary stories there are, hidden within families, buried beneath layers of shame and embarrassment. A few newspaper clippings and a clutch of certificates can hint at so much, and yet still tell so little. It’s made me want to go digging into my own family history once more, and I already want to read this remarkable novel all over again. I can’t wait to see what Rachel Malik will write next!