Honno, 2014. ISBN 978-1-906-78499-7.
[Originally posted on Story Circle Network Book Reviews]
We That are Left is Juliet Greenwood’s second novel set during the tumultuous years of the Great War, in a small village in Cornwall. Elin, the principle protagonist, is married to Hugo, a major in the British Army who suffered deep psychological wounds after serving during the Boer War. Though he may once have loved Elin, she can no longer find any vestiges of his love in her lonely life. But then, on a beautiful sunny day in August, a biplane piloted by an adventure-seeking young woman, paradoxically called Mouse, makes an emergency landing close to the manor, Hiram Hall. Elin not only makes a new friend on that portentous day, but is drawn ever more deeply into the intrigues and dramas of Mouse’s wild life and ends by making a new life for herself.
Juliet Greenwood is a rather unique author, one who succeeds in combining a variety of elements I enjoy in a novel. If she needs a label, or a shelf to be placed upon in the bookshop, I suppose her genre is romance, or perhaps the more all-encompassing genre of “women’s fiction with romantic elements.”
But being British, Greenwood has no need to worry about attempting to fit her novels within certain definitions, narrow or otherwise. The remit for English authors has always been wider, and deeper, than that, allowing (even within the confines of “genre” writing) for deviations and multifarious interpretations. In other words, an author generally has free rein to roam where her imagination might take her—although finding a publisher might take a little longer.
Juliet Greenwood is a quintessential English authoress. I use this word, not in any pejorative sense, but to acknowledge her long and illustrious heritage found within the covers of her novel-writing ancestors, many of whom are currently in the process of been re-published by small independent publishing houses, such as Persephone Press. Common themes in early 20th century women’s writing include strong female characters cast in an engaging socially-oriented fiction, elements much in evidence in Greenwood’s novels also. Like her forbears, Ms Greenwood is a mistress of storytelling. Her novel pulls the reader in from the very first page and drags her through a kind of potted history of women’s emerging consciousness and evolving dreams of freedom from the shackles which have long held them, and their mothers, and their mother’s mothers, in thrall to a destiny not of their own making.
Setting the “Prologue” aside for the moment, the story begins on August 1st, 1914. This tale, of almost epic proportions, opens with a sentence suggesting the devastation which can lie hidden beneath the apparent sweet innocence of the most delicate day in a rose-tinted English summer: “It was the day of raspberries and champagne, the day the world changed.”
Yet though the novel reads like something akin to a long film biopic, most of the action takes place over the few short, but terrible years, from 1914, when World War 1 began, to the summer of 1919. The book is flanked by a preface and a conclusion, both set in 1925. The preface is a setting for a protagonist returning to the scene of the crime, as it were, filled with a mixture of emotion encompassing both sorrow and regret, liberally laced with relief and a kind of hopeful anticipation. Indeed, the preface succeeds extremely well in setting the emotional undertones for the novel which is to follow. Juliet Greenwood is obviously a woman who watches without judging, a compassionate person who sees with a vision wider and more open than many of her contemporaries. Her novel reflects her deep consideration of many of the thorny issues which plagued not just her female characters in the story, but which continue to haunt many of her female contemporaries.
Throughout the novel, Greenwood throws a variety of difficult conundrums at her cast, and to her credit as a storyteller, she never allows herself to sink into the realm of authorial clichés. Her characters’ problems are often of a deeply moral nature, yet she never shirks from her responsibility to treat them with the deference they deserve. Over the course of the novel, Greenwood explores issues such as domestic violence, rape in times of war, the difficulties of procuring a divorce for a woman, the limited options for women before the First World War and the assumption, for many of a certain class, that all would return to the way it used to be once the Great War ended.
If you have a fondness for writing in the tradition of English women authors; if you enjoy romance but without the usual clichéd plots normally associated with the genre; if you treasure novels based upon well researched archives of women’s social history in the early 20th century; and if you love English period dramas made for television (such as the superb “The Crimson Field.” also set during the Great War and aired on BBC in early 2014), then I have no doubt whatsoever that you will simply adore Juliet Greenwood’s latest novel. I know I did!
After studying English at Lancaster University and King’s College, London, Juliet Greenwood worked in a variety of jobs, from running a craft stall at Covent Garden Market to teaching English.
Juliet began writing seriously about ten years ago, after a severe viral illness left her with debilitating ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for years. Juliet always says that M.E. was the worst, and the best, thing that ever happened to her. On the positive side, it made her a writer. As well as novels under her own name, Juliet writes stories and serials for magazines as “Heather Pardoe.”
When not writing, Juliet works on local oral history projects, helping older people tell their stories before they are lost forever. Visit her web site.