We That Are Left

There are few greater delights than a book that draws you in from the very first pages and immediately makes you care about what happens next, that demands your attention in every free moment you can conjure until the end.

We That Are Left (2)Juliet Greenwood, while painting a world that is far from one that we might imagine living ourselves, one that takes place in an enormous stately home on a hill overlooking a village in Cornwall – manages to imbue in the reader a kind of aspiring fantasy that those who prefer an episode of Downton Abbey to Twilight will be more than happy to immerse themselves within.

Two years ago I read her novel Eden’s Garden also set in Cornwall and Wales and adored it. That book was a dual narrative of two women, one in contemporary time, the other in the Victorian era, whose lives we follow and as the novel progresses reveals what connects them.

Now Juliet Greenwood has written a timely novel, chronicling the lives of a group of young women, focused on Elin Helstone, a young wife living in Hiram House, a country estate that has been her family home since birth.  Now run by her increasingly distant husband Hugo, he has become consumed by dark thoughts he is unwilling to share connected to events of the Boer War and is now likely to be called up in yet another war. Elin tries to anticipate her husbands needs until the onset of war provides the circumstance  that will propel her towards asserting an independence she will find difficult to relinquish.

Elin’s unmarried cousin Alice lives with them, though Hugo pursues every opportunity to introduce her to eligible company in the hope that she too might exit his orbit. Then there is Mouse, Lady Margaret Northholme, whom the two young women meet in the opening pages and become firm friends, their lives will become forever entwined as war descends upon the country and everything as they have previously known it changes forever.

The opening pages possess an air of excitement and potential, young people meet at their big houses, conforming to social convention and can’t quite believe the rumours of pending war.

‘It will most likely blow over. War is such a medieval occupation. I can’t imagine any modern state embarking on such barbarity.’

War Draft

However, war does arrive and strips the village bare of men, plunging those who stay behind into an alternative way of living, they must live with the fear of not knowing what will happen, of the risk of attack and the dread of a telegram bearing tragic news.

That fear of the unknown will become less significant in comparison with the experience awaiting Elin and her gardener Jack as they depart on their own dangerous mission.

‘Nervous?’

‘Terrified,’ I replied.

‘So you should be. There’s no point in being brave from now on. Forget what anyone ever told you about heroes. Once we reach the other side, it’s fear that will keep you alive.’

Juliet Greenwood creates believable characters, putting them in credible but challenging situations where they fulfill our suspicions of their true natures, while her trademark elements of mystery and intrigue run on continuously throughout the narrative.

She does the same with country locations, we inhabit Hiram Hall and the Welsh farmhouse as if we had known them for years, the author invokes the reader’s imagination bringing the outdoor landscape and its associated elements into the page like fog creeping in from the bay. As Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift reminded us “The spirit of an artist’s gifts can wake our own.’

Port Issac Cornwall

We that are left begins in 1914, a mere five years before Michel Déon’s The Foundling Boy (reviewed here) in 1919 and yet the contrast couldn’t be greater.

Here we become immersed in the war years (Déons novel set in the interwar years) where the absence of so many men advanced opportunities for women like no suffragette initiative yet had, though they certainly paved the way for women like Elin, Lady Margaret, Kitty, Alice and others to be able to take the initiative and get involved in the war effort. They learn to drive, volunteer in hospitals, grow food and distribute it to those with little or nothing. Women of the upper classes who were used to being waited on found themselves with few staff and having to manage like common people. Servants experienced the shift in equality between the classes.

Having complained about the lack of female role models with redeeming features in Michel Déon’s coming of age novel, I find them in abundance here and can’t help but observe the contrast in the female characters portrayed here versus those we met across the channel.

The actions of these women were no doubt inspired from Juliet Greenwood’s research into women and the war effort and she mentions the Virago Book of Women and the Great War edited by Joyce Marlow in the bibliography.

!!!!Car

Gertrude Stein With Auntie and war supplies, 1917

I was reminded of the incredible and courageous efforts of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas as portrayed in Diana Souhami’s excellent biography Gertrude and Alice; Gertrude having sold her Matisse Women with a Hat she and Alice initially decamped for the French Riviera abandoning Paris, but after some time became bored and returned deciding they too wanted to help with the war effort.

After meeting with an organisation that distributed supplies to hospitals, they were informed it would be most useful if they could provide a truck and do the same. So Gertrude took driving lessons, wrote to a cousin in New York asking for a van to be sent, had it converted and named Auntie and off they went road tripping around the country, becoming known at the garages throughout France, distributing the hospital supplies, writing letters to soldiers whom they referred to as their military godsons and collecting recipes along the way. But that’s another story!

We That Are Left is an enthralling read that sets a compulsive pace from that first intriguing landing and doesn’t let up until the final pages. It  is a moving contribution to contemporary WWI fiction and an enlightening exposé on how perceptions and the role of women experienced a complete and irreversible paradigm shift during those years, from which we have benefited more than we realise.

Highly recommended.

Note: Thank you to the author Juliet Greenwood for providing the photos of Glynllifon Hall above, and to her publisher Honno Press for providing me with a copy of the book to read.

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22 thoughts on “We That Are Left

  1. This sounds lovely, I’ve added it to my wishlist. I love novels set in Cornwell, even though I live on the other side of the world…

    • Not living in Cornwall makes this the perfect read, it brings it alive and allows us to go there from any destination in the world, I was utterly transported. I hope you enjoy it, you will like her previous book Eden’s Garden too, if you enjoy reading a gripping story from this area.

    • I love Cornwall, and I loved living there in my head while I was writing the story in my cottage in the Welsh hills. I hope it brings the unique magic of Cornwall into your life too!

  2. What a marvellous review Claire – about a fascinating time in history and in womens lives – I find this period really rivetting and will be watching out for this book..to get to this part of the world !.

  3. I finished the book, on your recommendation of course, just a few days ago. You have summed it up very well. Thank you for the extra tidbits on Gertrude Stein. I shall add Gertrude and Alice to my reading list.
    I found the character of Elin very endearing. She remains faithful in spirit to Hugo up until the very end and her doubting character is well portrayed. When she and Jack set out for France to confront the Germans, I had a moment of doubt. It didn’t seem very believable but I was reassured as the story evolved.
    Have you read La Bicyclette Bleue by Régine Desforges? It takes place during WWII in France during the German occupation but is also on the theme of women coming into their own in wartime. it’s the first in a trilogy. I read them a very long time ago so I don’t know how accurate my memory is!

    • I am glad you enjoyed the book too Rosemary and read it at the same time, Elin was indeed an endearing character and I was enamoured of her generosity considering Hiram Hall really was her family home and yet she stood to lose it. Her love of humanity exceeded her attachment to property and wealth, unique values when we reflect on the world the way it is today.

      I thought the escapade a little naive and without Jack, it probably would not have got further than the shores of England, but it did feel quite real for me reading and quite tense at moments. My only criticism was the lack of encounters with the local population. War time no doubt felt very different, but I had little sense of being in France, or perhaps it was just that I was looking for it, while the characters were cracking on with their purpose.

      Thanks for the recommendation of La Bicyclette Bleue, I love a good historical trilogy, I will certainly track it down. I have been slow reading Gertrude and Alice for a long time, I find their stories so different to that of the rest of the lost generation, Gertrude Stein was something of a unique force and a connector of people in a very authentic, grounded way and what a spirit, to get involved in the way she did and make a difference to people’s lives in a devastating period in our history.

      • Yes, I know what you mean, Claire – I wanted to meet more of the local population too. There wasn’t time in this story, however – watch this space …. :-)

      • Hi Juliet, this is probably the first time an author has responded to one of my comments. Thank you. I’ve just read La Bicyclette Bleue and I hesitate to recommend it. I don’t like the main character Lea and find it difficult to believe in her. There are two many contradictions. The wartime situation, though, especially the bombing of Orléans, is very well depicted. The author, Régine Desforges, died yesterday so I expect there will be quite a bit in the French press. Her books have been translated into many, many languages. I won’t go any further in the trilogy.

  4. Thank you for that wonderful review, Claire. You brought tears to my eyes when I read it. I can’t thank you enough, and I am utterly delighted that you enjoyed it so much. Merci! x

    • You are a wonderful storyteller Juliet and create characters that compel us to want to follow and know what will happen to them. I will always look forward to your next book and I hope you continue to be inspired to create more!

  5. The title itself is particularly alluring . . . and your take re: the female characters, especially in a book with war as its undercurrent, seals the deal for me. Your review is certainly enhanced by references to ‘Gertrude and Alice’ (which I’ve read) and ‘The Gift’ (which I have in two editions — 1979, falling apart, and a 25th anniversary edition). Speaking of which, it intrigues me that the original subtitle — ‘Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property’ — was changed to ‘Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.’ How’s that for a touch of literary trivia?

    • So happy to hear you are tempted by this one Deborah and it is a definite reminder of Gertrude and Alice’s escapades! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

      Interesting change in sub-title for The Gift, I noticed that it had a couple of names and in fact I have only read a sample, but in the introduction, he said he’d written it for poets yet received many letters from other artists and creatives, the first title seems to relate to that premise of a gift versus something that has a value ascribed to it, it’s a bit of a teaser, not really knowing who its audience might be whereas the second title has more clarity in terms of who is it is aimed at. :)

      I actually found the beginning chapters of The Gift a little staid, but you would recommend it?

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