Sarah Franklin has an incredibly impressive literary CV and yet this is her debut novel. In 2014 the opening pages of this very novel won Sarah a Jerwood/Arvon Mentorship, working with Jenn Ashworth and others to finish the project.
Set in 1944, two out of place strangers meet and find common ground. Connie is a city girl from Coventry. After a devastating bombing raid, she escapes the city and finds refuge in the Women’s Timber Corps, learning to fell trees in the Forest of Dean. Seppe is Italian, sent to a POW camp in the forest after being captured in north Africa. Sick of being trapped among his fascist compatriots after having been forced to fight for a cause he never believed in, Seppe manages to wangle a job outside the camp working with Connie. They become friends and the book follows their journey from outsiders learning to cope with life in a small village where everyone knows each other, to becoming part of a community.
The great strength of this novel is in the detail. Beautifully written, the landscape is the star of Franklin’s book, stealing the limelight from any human character. I was immersed in the Forest of Dean from the moment Connie arrives, and the historical setting is also spot on. In terms of educational value, there is much to learn (and I do appreciate leaving a book knowing more than I did when I started it!). I had no idea that ‘lumberjills’ were a thing, but with the demand for timber increasing as the war went on, and with able bodied men out fighting, Connie’s story is by no means unique. The POW camp too was a revelation, as was the idea that these so-called prisoners could actually wander in and out so long as they stuck to a curfew and weren’t known to be among the hardcore fascists (marked out by being forced to wear a black band over their uniforms). So much research must have been carried out and yet it is drawn so lightly on the page.
Perhaps because the surroundings are so expertly brought to life, I did find the characters less compelling than I would have liked. I never felt that I understood Connie quite, though since she didn’t know herself what she wanted maybe that fits. Seppe was lovely but I did start to wish he’d stand up for himself at some point; bullied for his entire life, both by his fascist father and by an old schoolmate he sees him as a traitor, he couldn’t even tell Connie what he thought of anything. Sheep farmer Amos was a much more believable character. His quiet stoic nature in the face of losing his only son to the war, in addition to having Connie forced upon him when there is nowhere else for her to live, was beautiful to read. A man of few words, I felt his anguish while Connie never shut up and yet I never understood why she was ever attracted to Seppe.
Although the blurb hints at romantic love, I wouldn’t read this novel expecting too much from that angle. I preferred the friendship between Seppe and Connie, before things get unnecessarily messy. I loved Amos, and Joyce and Frank who live next door. I can’t say too much else without spoilers but I suppose I wanted there to be more at stake. The first third of the book hints that there could be some disaster on the cards but it never quite hits home as hard as I wanted it to. There was just a lack of… passion? I’m not sure, but this is a very good book, just not quite as great as I hoped it would be.
Thanks to Readers First for the review copy.