07/11/2004

Love and Laughter (by Lilian Harry)

I'd never head of Lilian Harry. In general I'm not all that keen on realistic war-years books, either. But someone gave me this, and so I started reading...

It's obvious from the opening of this book that it's a war story. Geoff Pengelly, aged 12, bursts into the house from school announcing that the war is over - he's heard it on the wireless, and everyone's having a day off. His mother Lucy ponders the most significant thing for her personally: if the war really is over, then her husband Wilmot should be coming home.

The book then takes us back to the time when Lucy, aged 18, had first met and been courted by Wilmot. He was a happy-go-lucky sailor who adored her. They married and she adapted to navy life, giving birth first to Geoff and then to a daughter, Patsy, then another little girl, Zannah. Wilmot considered leaving the navy, perhaps going to work in the small hotel which his parents run. But then World War II broke out and he had no choice. After being feared dead he was captured by the Japanese, and finally released at the end of the war.

After this lengthy flashback, which gives the background of the main characters and their close friends and family, the book returns to the moment when Wilmot returns. But he's not the husband Lucy remembers; he's been tortured, and seen terrible sights which haunt him. Lucy does all she can to help him settle back into family life, but more and more Wilmot turns to alcohol as a solace. The family has also suffered losses during the blitz on England, and Wilmot's parents' hotel must be rebuilt. Lucy has taken on most of the running and has some ambitious ideas for expansion, but Wilmot sees it as a threat to his masculinity when his wife discusses finances and comes up with ideas.

The rest of the book revolves around this tightly-knit family, the tragedy of Wilmot's inability to deal with everyday stresses and strains, and also a growing attraction between Lucy and an old family friend, David, who lost his young family during the war. I found it a bit difficult to get into at first; it read like a typical war novel, and at first I found myself confusing the various characters. It was a good book to read just before going to sleep - it was well-written and I found it held my interest, but a couple of chapters was enough to make me feel relaxed but I had no compulsion to keep reading all night!

However I found myself gradually drawn in to the family, particularly as the children grow up and their personalities and problems come into play. Wilmot's parents become older and frailer, Lucy takes on increasingly more responsibility for the entire extended family, and Wilmot himself struggles desperately with the need to be a family man, and the deep emotional and psychological wounding he received during his imprisonment.

So it was a useful book from a historical perspective; it was mainly character-driven, and the characters definitely grew on me. By the time I was half-way through the book I found myself reading more and more at a time, until finally I picked it up one morning and read the last 100 pages or so without a break. By the final chapter I had tears pouring down my face, even though the ending was entirely satisfactory and not unexpected. Perhaps the writing became more moving; perhaps I was just in an emotional mood! Whatever the reason, the end was far more moving and enjoyable than the beginning.

Recommended.

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