Be careful what you say. Like everyone else, you will hear things that the enemy mustn’t know. Keep that knowledge to yourself –and don’t give away any clues. Keep smiling.
On the cusp of World War II, this warning resonates with Britain’s fearful population. But to Nora Lynch, these words carry another layer of meaning, one more intimate and shameful. And for more than fifty years, she will keep her lips tightly sealed.
Catherine Hall, Days of Grace .
When the war breaks out, twelve-year-old Nora is one of thousands of London children evacuated to the safety of the English countryside. Her surrogate family, Reverend Rivers, his wife, and their daughter, Grace, offer Nora affection and a wealth of comforts previously unknown to her. All the initial anger and resentment which she felt towards her mother for sending her away is quickly replaced by a love for her new way of life in rural Kent with the Rivers family.
“I did not know then that things are often not what they seem. There were dark places in the countryside with only the birds to see what happened in them. The rectory had carpets to sweep bad news under. There was space for secrets. The war wasn’t the only phoney thing that autumn, but I didn’t notice. I was wonderfully happy, happier than I ever thought possible. Each morning I woke up knowing that by the time I went to bed again, I would have learned something new. … It was as if I had been born a second time, into a life that was so thrilling that sometimes I found it hard to breathe.”
The story is told in both the compelling voice of the teenage Nora, struggling to keep her secrets and forbidden desires during the war, as well as in the quiet and repressive voice of the elderly Nora, who is slowly succumbing to her terminal illness. Although the chapters alternate between the past and the present with two parallel storylines going on at the same time, the writer has done a remarkable job in weaving both the stories together almost seamlessly. I was hooked from the first page by the voice of the elderly Nora, being made curious to know what was the story behind this old, lonely woman whose only comfort is in books, who seemed to have withdrawn herself from the world around her and was so weighed down with secrets that are far more painful to bear than the actual physical disease that is eating away at her.
Days of Grace is a beautiful and tender piece of writing on many levels. Reading the book, I was transported to another place, another time, going through the same heartaches and pains as experienced by both the young, and the elderly Nora, in equal measures.
“I imagined myself in a hospital, being prodded and poked by strangers who would come to know everything about me. I would be there for everyone to see, laid out on a bed as if I were already on a mortuary slab, unable to hide a thing. …. I wanted to shout out for everyone to hear. Don’t you see? I surrendered a long time ago….. I carried on dying all the way through the war, while everyone else was trying so damned hard to stay alive. Now it’s time to finish the job.”
“My reflection made me shrink away in horror. My eyes stared out from hollow sockets, their faded blue the only colour in a face in which skin stretched over bone in a ghastly premonition of a skeleton. My lips were cracked. They collapsed inwards, pressed together, the lips of someone with secrets. A few strands of hair straggled over my scalp like grasses left after a harvest. The disease had made me into something inhuman. My wickedness was on display to whoever cared to look.”
It was heart-wrenching to read pieces like these from the elderly Nora especially when one has already been privy to some of the secrets of her younger self.
“Sometimes it was a relief to be alone. After Spitfire Summer, I had started to feel things that made me afraid. I didn’t tell Grace everything any more. I didn’y want her to know about the dreams I had, troubling dreams that jolted me awake at night. I would make out Grace’s shape under the bedclothes, rising and falling as she breathed, imagining myself drawing back the blanket, then the sheet, lifting her nightdress so that I can see her body’s new curves. I wanted to touch her skin. I wanted to press myself close to her, winding around her like the creeper that covered the front wall of the rectory.
I knew that if I told her I would ruin everything. I followed the rules. I was careful what I said. But the rules didn’t say I couldn’t think about her. I thought about her all the time.”
There are quite a few more finer points and plots to the story which I think is best left to the discovery of the reader. The author had commented in one of her interviews that she was struck by the psychiatrist and scientist Wilhelm Reich’s description of cancer as “a disease following emotional resignation… … a giving up of hope.” And found it to be a fitting description for Nora.
The blurb at the back of my copy of the book describes it as ‘Sarah Waters meets Daphne du Maurier’. I would prefer to give the credit to Catherine Hall in her own right, though, especially considering the fact that this is only her debut novel. She has certainly proven herself to be a writer to look out for. The blurb also says that in this book, Hall has written beautifully about the exquisite pains of unrequited love.
That, I could not agree more.
If only you knew, I thought. If only you knew how you could make somebody want you. It doesn’t take communion wine and a sunny afternoon by the lake. I want you on rainy days when we’re drinking tea with your mother in the kitchen. I want you in the morning when your eyes are still full of sleep. I want you when you don’t know the answers to your father’s questions on algebra and you’re ashamed of it. But I can’t tell you any of that because I know you don’t want me.