352pp, paperback, £8.99
Reviewed by Alison Burns
‘There was a hint of envy in her voice. A small box of invisible desire stood on Rose’s bedside table. Cecily saw all sorts of unidentified jewels inside.
‘Do you want to go, too’ she asked, feeling like a magpie, lifting the invisible lid with one finger.
‘Of course not! I don’t want to fight the Germans.’
Her sister’s eyes were ablaze with lies as she prised Cecily’s fingers off the lid and closed the box firmly.
‘But I don’t want to spend my life in this ghastly place, either.’
It is late summer, 1939. Fourteen-year-old Cecily is in awe of her older sister, Rose, who is so beautiful and so romantic. Rose is envious of their brother, Joe, who has just signed up and will get away, to France. Palmyra Farm, their Suffolk home, is preparing for the harvest. England that summer, on the brink of war, is as beautiful as Rose, the land lying ‘under a hazy golden silence’ as ‘death watched them from amongst the froth of cow parsley.’
If Rose’s fatal flaw is romanticism, Cecily’s is curiosity: she is an inveterate eavesdropper. In this family there is much to overhear, all of it confusing.
The Maudsley family at Palmyra consists of parents Agnes and Selwyn, their three children, Aunt Kitty (Agnes’s sister) and a collection of staff, including cook and gardener. The children’s friends include Bellamy, the tinker’s boy, with whom Rose has sex, and the charming Molinello family, owners of the first Italian ice-cream parlour in Bly. While Agnes picks the endless fruit and Rose listens to jazz, Selwyn leaves his tractor behind and goes up to London for a government interview. From then on, he takes charge of air-raid precautions.
Preparations for the annual tennis party, complete with Italian ice-cream, vie with the harvest. Golden day follows golden day. Creepy Robert Wilson appears, with boxes of chocolates: is he a friend, or a spy? Carlo Molinello watches Rose, Bellamy watches Rose, Robert Wilson watches Rose. Selwyn keeps disappearing. Agnes is sad, Kitty is sharp, Cecily mystified. And then Cecily makes a mistake.
Nearly 30 years later, Cecily returns, to the derelict farmhouse in which her mother lived on after The Tragedy that year – when Rose died, and Selwyn went to prison. Memories flood back. Some of the secrets she eventually uncovers are worse than her guilt, and almost impossible to bear.
This (Tearne’s sixth) is an extraordinarily compelling, subtle and atmospheric novel, inspired by the chance discovery of old photographs. In it, Tearne does justice not only to history but to the heartbreaking complexities of family life in a time of war.