A burgeoning childhood friendship in rural Kent during the years of World War II gives Hall’s gorgeous debut novel a dense emotional fabric that is impossible to forget. Dark shapes seem to swoop in front of aging Nora Lynch when she learns that her life is finally going to end. A woman mired in regrets
and harboring years of bottled-up passions, it’s almost a relief for this lonely, solitary spinster to have her diagnosis of cancer finally spelled out.
a secluded life in London, Nora’s secrets are woven into an opaque tapestry of the imagination with vivid memories of
being twelve and urgently packed off by her mother to the relative safety of county Kent. From the initial angst-ridden train journey to the kindly efforts of Mrs. Rivers, whom Nora first meets at the station, everything that follows is a test of how much Nora can stand as she travels forwards on her deeply emotional journey.
Smelling of lemons and cleanliness, her skin so smooth and pale, Mrs. Rivers briskly becomes the girl’s guardian angel along with her daughter, boisterous and spirited Grace. Even Grace’s father, tight-lipped Reverend Rivers, is thankful that Nora has arrived, sternly telling her
that she is to be a part of the family and will stay with them at their rectory as long as it is safer here than in London.
As the months pass, Nora grows wonderfully happy in this storybook setting where the sun seems to perpetually shine in the meadows, and
where together with Grace she can laugh out loud and whoop with pleasure while they swim in the cool, ivy-colored waters of the local
lake, both perfectly secret and silent. Nora imagines the bombs falling on the London streets “like deadly raindrops,”
but the tranquil woods and fields around this rural village become their own “private little kingdom.”
Innocent Grace finds herself strangely attracted to her new friend, and Hall’s story begins to intensify with quiet rage.
We become a part of Nora’s inner life, witnessing her passion for free-spirited Grace and later, in London, the swelling out of her abdomen, “her own small menace,” and her friendship with Rose, a girl from the bed-sit across the street. Remembering the tears and heartache, emboldened by new tenderness, Nora helps Rose deliver her child. With her illness robbing her of the few friends she has, she invites Rose to stay at her house, recognizing in her someone who has also isolated herself from the bitter truths of life.
Nora’s memories tumble over each other, past and present jostling for attention as Hall’s tale posits dark secrets, “the constant keeping quiet and hiding things from each other.” War-time London is a strange and battered place where an illegal abortion can go terribly wrong. The countryside is also a place of dark furtiveness: the strained silence at the rectory, Mrs. Rivers eternal unhappiness, the Reverend’s unexplained coldness toward Grace, and Nora’s small seed of separation, planted the day she left her mother.
At first Rose is susceptible and cautious toward Nora as she tries to re-establish a damaged life. Nora, however, sees the girl as a way to divert herself from the complications of her past, a past that involved the tragedy of Grace. An intricate exploration of forbidden passions suffocated by religious guilt, Nora’s secrets gradually play out, her life strangely reminiscent of du Maurier’s
Rebecca, a book that Nora readily admits she once loved. A story of redemption, there’s
an ineffable sense of time passing as Nora's obsessions unfold against the bucolic landscapes of Kent and the darker scenes in London, where her memories prove to be unalterable, a place where her inexplicable powers of love are finally tested.