Book review – “Seven Days in May” by Kim Izzo

When I began my Facebook reading challenge at the start of 2018, the monthly themes were fairly easy – a YA novel, a work of feminist fiction, crime fiction, etc. Over the last three years I’ve read some cracking books that I would probably not have picked up otherwise. Memorable titles have included The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin, Please Look After Mother by Kyook-Su Shin and The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant. As time has gone on, I’ve been scraping the bottom of the barrel for themes and they have become a little more random, to say the least! Bereft of ideas, for May I decided it would be “a book with May in the title”. I don’t know what I was thinking – perhaps a touch too much sherry over Christmas when I was putting the list together, or months of lockdown making me go a bit loopy! Well, finding a title was challenge enough, but I did – Seven Days in May by Kim Izzo. This novel was first published in Canada in 2017. I never like to criticise a book, but I think it was not one of those which I would include on my most memorable list.

I love historical fiction and this book ticks that box since it is based on the true story of the sinking of the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania in May 1915. Most people will have heard of the Lusitania, but I wonder how many know the background to the story. The luxury cruise liner’s maiden voyage was in 1906 and she travelled the north Atlantic route between Liverpool and New York. At the time, she was one of the fastest vessels of her kind. It was almost at the end of her 202nd voyage on 7 May 1915, that she was torpedoed by a German submarine and sunk a few miles off the southern coast of Ireland, near Kinsale. The wreck still lies there. Almost 1,200 passengers and crew perished, and 761 survived. One of the survivors was the author’s great-grandfather. The story of the Lusitania is important, historically, because it was instrumental in drawing the Americans into the first world war. Many conspiracies about the ship abound, including that Churchill (who was First Sea Lord at the time), placed the Lusitania directly in harm’s way, by failing to adequately warn or protect her; it has been said he calculated that the loss of American citizens would trigger the US to declare war on Germany. Kim Izzo explores some of these conspiracies in the novel, hinting strongly at Churchill’s negligence. 

There is more story than history in this novel, however, and the main plot of the novel concerns the relationship between wealthy American socialites, sisters Brooke and Sydney Sinclair, and English aristocrat Edward Thorp-Tracey. The elder Sinclair sister, Brooke, is engaged to be married to Edward. The match is a fond but loveless one, a marriage of mutual convenience; Brooke’s wealth will preserve the Thorp-Tracey seat, Rathfon Hall in Somerset, while Edward’s title will add status to the Sinclair name. When Edward finally meets Brooke’s younger sister Sydney, at the engagement party in New York, just before they set off for England for the wedding, he finds he is instantly attracted to her. Sydney is headstrong, passionate in her political beliefs and more down to earth than her sister. Brooke and Sydney have a falling out just ahead of the voyage which leads to Sydney refusing to share the suite her sister has booked for them, and instead booking a cabin in third class. Over the course of the voyage, Edward and Sydney find themselves falling in love with one another and Sydney’s separate and distant quarters make their clandestine meetings possible.

A parallel story is taking place in London. Isabel Nelson, also, it turns out, a passionate, headstrong and determined young woman, finds herself working in ‘Room 40’ at The Admiralty. She worked in service in Oxford, but after an affair with her employer, who, amongst other things, had arranged for her to obtain some clerical qualifications, was banished to London after his wife had found out about his infidelity from another servant. This turns out rather well for Isabel since she finds she likes the work. Room 40 was a real code-breaking unit, a prototype of Bletchley Park, so important to the Allied victory in the second world war. Isabel’s job is to type up and distribute the coded messages translated by the (all-male) code-breaking team. Isabel follows the movements of the German submarine captain who is said to have fired the torpedo which downed the Lusitania and a number of other vessels at the time. She becomes increasingly concerned about the passenger ship and fears it is a target and that not enough is being done to protect it.

There is a personal dimension to the Isabel story too when her former fellow servant, the ghastly Mildred, turns up at the Admiralty, also having got a job there, and threatens to undermine Isabel’s position, by spreading gossip about her past.

The book was not unenjoyable; it had some interesting historical detail. But I found the plot a little thin for my taste. I did not really warm to any of the characters, and found myself a little agitated by the cliched portrayal of the different classes of person, from the passengers aboard the ship to the civil servants in London. Kim Izzo is a bestselling author and her most successful book is The Jane Austen Marriage Manual.

Recommended if you want a little bit of uncomplicated escapism with some history thrown in.

Book review – “Zennor in Darkness” by Helen Dunmore

This was the April choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. At the start of the year I choose a particular theme for each month and April’s was historical fiction. Helen Dunmore was not much on my radar until I read Birdcage Walk last year, her final novel, published posthumously (Dunmore died in 2017). I thought the book was incredible and I was desperate to read more of her work. Dunmore was also a poet and acclaimed short story writer, but her historical fiction is what she is best known for, I think, and it is outstanding. Zennor in Darkness was in fact her debut novel, published in 1993, and it won the McKitterick Prize, which is awarded to debut novels of authors over 40 (there is hope for me yet!) I was open-minded; I did not expect it to be as polished as Birdcage Walk, in which she has fully matured as a writer and truly mastered her craft, but I did think it would be interesting to observe her burgeoning talent and to be able to see how she evolved as an artist.

Zennor in DarknessI really enjoyed Zennor in Darkness. It is a great story, two stories really, which become intertwined. Clare Coyne is the only daughter of widowed Francis Coyne, and the pair live together in the small town of Zennor in Cornwall. Clare’s mother was born there and the family moved from London when Clare was a baby in order to be near family. Clare’s father’s family had a higher social status, and Clare is clearly ‘different’ from her Cornish cousins, grandparents and aunts, with whom she has spent so much time, but Clare is largely disconnected from her paternal grandparents. Francis Coyne is an ineffectual character, a botanist who earns very little money from his publishing, who spends more time with his books than with his daughter, and who does not seem to understand her on any level. Clare has artistic ability and is a talented artist. She spends her time looking after her father, keeping house, and drawing plants for his latest book project.

Clare is very close to her cousins of her own age, particularly the girls Peggy and Hannah, and her slightly older male cousin, John. The novel is set in 1917, when Britain was in a state of trauma about its involvement in the First World War, the lives lost and the lives destroyed by battle.

Another (temporary) resident of the small Cornish community is the author DH Lawrence, who is renting a house there with his German wife Frieda (this part of the story is based on fact). The couple left London as Lawrence’s anti-war views had aroused great hostility, not helped by the fact of being married to a German. In Cornwall the couple hoped to find peace and quiet, but as the novel progresses it becomes increasingly clear that some of the locals are suspicious of Lawrence, the outsider, the anti-patriot, and rumours spread that Frieda is actually a spy; the audacious red curtains hanging in the window of their rented cottage are thought to be signals to passing German U-boats!

Clare strikes up a friendship with the Lawrences, and is excited by their bohemian lifestyle, such a contrast to her own humdrum life and community. Clare also becomes romantically and sexually involved with her beloved cousin John when he returns home briefly on leave from the trenches. Like Clare, John is a cut above, had ambitions to be a doctor when he was younger, though the war put paid to that. His ability has been recognised, however, and at the end of his leave he is to begin officer training.

The title of the novel has many meanings – the ‘Darkness’ could refer to the dark times of the war and the attendant human suffering, but also to the sometimes narrow-minded attitudes of the local community to the outsider Lawrence, to Clare and Francis even. The setting of the novel is at times idyllic; there is a sense of suspension of time and escape from war (in part why the Lawrences moved there), particularly in the wonderful scenes at the beginning of the girls paddling in the sea and the recollections of the idyllic rural childhood they enjoyed. But as the novel progresses, darkness descends ever more over the events. There is no ‘happy ending’ here (how could there be, set as it is in the First World War?) but there is a kind of peace, a reconciling and a coming of age which is partly positive.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it will spur me on to read more of Helen Dunmore.

Recommended.