Elise Landau is almost eighteen yet in many ways she is still a child – a happy, cosseted, carefree child. But Vienna in 1937 is on the brink of momentous change and the fabric of Elise’s privileged childhood is already starting to disintegrate: her father’s books are being burned in the streets, her older sister is no longer allowed to attend the Conservatoire, and her mother’s friends abroad are urging her to leave Austria as soon as possible. For the Landaus are Jewish, and though this has never mattered before – least of all to the Landaus, who are not religious – it seems that it now matters a great deal. Concerned by the political situation, Elise’s parents decide to send her away to safety in England. And so Elise sets out for a foreign land, with her father’s latest novel hidden inside her rosewood viola, her mother’s jewels sewn into the hem of her clothes, and the promise that her parents will join her as soon as they obtain their visas.
In England, Elise makes her way to Tyneford, a secluded village on the Dorset coast, where she has obtained a post as maid up at the manor house. Life there isn’t easy for Elise: her accent excites suspicion, while the complex customs and rigid etiquette of a stately English home cause her to blunder more than once. And she who has never even had to make her bed before must now learn to be up at five o’clock every morning, scour floors, polish silver, and take orders from the irate senior servants. The unexpected kindness of her employer, Mr Rivers, eases her loneliness a little, but it is his son Kit who becomes her first friend. Kit takes her under his wing, correcting her eccentric grammar, introducing her to his friends, and reminding her of what it feels like to be young and gay. A budding romance between the young master of Tyneford and his Austrian housemaid is not exactly what the local gentry had had in mind, however: servants should know their place, and so should foreigners. At least, that is the opinion of the beautiful and spiteful Lady Diana Hamilton, who has her sights set on Kit…
Such considerations soon become of minor importance, however, for war is approaching and though Elise’s sister has made it safely over to America, her parents are still stuck in Vienna. And then war is upon them, and not only are Elise’s parents in danger, but also Elise herself, now considered an enemy alien, Kit, who immediately joins up and whose recklessness causes Elise constant anxiety, and Tyneford itself, which Elise has come to love as a second home and whose ancestral way of life is threatened with extinction. Tea on the veranda no longer has the same taste and parties now include WAAFS and soldiers on leave. Elise now comes into her own, quietly but firmly taking charge, until the household and Mr Rivers regard her as the one person they can depend on. But then tragedy strikes, and then again, and Elise can no longer cope. Amid her overwhelming grief, a man stretches out his hand to her, and with his heart, gives her the courage to rebuild her life.
With the passing of time, we risk forgetting what a terrible war the Second World War was. Those who were there and can remember what it was like are becoming fewer and fewer. Facts, dates, numbers, statistics – it is easy for them to lose their meaning. So many movies have been made, so many books written on the subject, that they all tend to run into one another. Students shrug their shoulders and sigh at having to swat for exams. The suffering of individuals is diluted, rendered banal. But that it was possible for people to be made to experience such acute suffering never ceases to upset me. And that somehow, they found the strength to live on, fills me with awe and profound humility. Without melodrama or sentimentality, but with remarkable empathy, Natasha Solomons reminds us of the price paid by our grand-parents during the war. She doesn’t need to describe the horror of the concentration camps or to place the reader in the midst of the blood and exploding bombs of the battlefield to carry her point across. Her heroine is an ordinary girl leading a quiet life in a sleepy little fishing hamlet. But she makes this girl so real, her burden so unjustly heavy to carry, and her grief so raw, that one would have to be exceptionally hard-hearted not to be touched. And though I cried till I was nothing more than a sodden, mascara-streaked lump, I cannot recommend this wonderful book enough.
© Florence Berlioz 2011