Gregory is a superb storyteller, this chilling novel of thwarted love, madness and familial obligations set in 1920’s England in the aftermath of World War I. The unlikely heroine is 17-year-old singer Lily Valance. Visiting the theater with a fellow veteran, Stephen Winters has returned a hero from a war that cut a swath of death through many English families, his own included - an older brother, Christopher.
Much changed in the horrific years of battle, Stephen appears well-adjusted but suffers traumatic nightmares that haunt his sleep. Once Stephen hears the angelic Lily sing, the lone rose in a field of daisies, Stephen sets his heart on her, convinced Lily will banish the nightmares and restore him to the life he deserves. The upper-class Winters, especially Stephen’s mother, Muriel, were hoping for a traditional wife for their entitled second son, a plan gainsaid by the determined Stephen.
With a sunny disposition and a devoted mother to guide her, Lily is flush with success, the music director, Charlie Smith, also a returned vet, refining her act for an appreciative audience. Although Lily is also a chorus girl, Stephen avoids that unsettling reality, focusing instead on the girl’s obvious virtue. But Lily’s mother watches her daughter carefully, aware of the dangers that lurk outside the stage door.
Gregory carefully builds her characters, structuring their outward actions and inner demons for maximum emotional impact, Lily the only one truly untouched by the war and that out of sheer force of will. Intimidated by Stephen’s infatuation, Lily resists, saving her heart for another. Fate intervenes, and Lily is left alone, facing terrible choices; Stephen is a consoling figure at her side, promising always to care for her.
To Lily, singing and career are as essential as breathing, but with limited resources, she is dependent upon Stephen and his family’s goodwill. What she is not prepared for is the dark side of her new husband’s nature, the terrible, albeit invisible scars he bears and how his distorted personality affects their marriage.
The supporting characters are complex, riddled with their own issues: Charlie, who must watch Lily’s marriage from afar; Muriel, a sad, bitter woman who cares more about social status than the welfare of her family; Rory, Stephen’s father, crippled by a stroke when he learned of Christopher’s death, soothed and loved by the generous Lily; and Coventry, the mute soldier, now chauffer, who spent the war at Stephen’s side, caring for him then and now, years later as Stephen grapples with the dreams that are driving him mad: “Help me. It’s what I married you for.”
Gregory handles brutality and joy equitably, the horrors of war and the birth of a son, the rage of jealousy and unrequited love. Here the war comes home to England, culminating in a shattering denouement. Gregory’s work reveals the usual high drama with rhythm and grace, dense prose that reveals and dissects, human failings stripped to the bone. But Lily is a survivor, a girl grown to womanhood in the harsh landscape of a deeply troubled marriage: “We’ve got to live no matter how many skies have fallen.” (DH Lawrence)