Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Two World Wars, Two Women, Thousands of Letters

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole


In March 1912, David Graham is a University student in Urbana, Illinois. He's just read a book of poetry by Elspeth Dunn, who lives on Scotland's Isle of Skye. Impressed, he decides to write to her, and thereby begins a correspondence that will change both their lives. Just over 28 years later, Margaret's best friend is about to join the war as a RAF fighter pilot, when she realizes she's in love with him, as much as he is in love with her. When a bomb rips through the wall of her mother's Edinburgh house, out spills piles of letters her mother has been keeping since before the Great War. The next morning, her mother and the letters are gone - except for the single, yellowed page Margaret picked up. The contents of that letter are so mysterious, it leads her to a quest to discover the secrets her mother has kept all her life, which might also answer her own questions of who she is. 


If you think epistolary novels are a hackneyed way to tell a story, you must have read the wrong ones. Personally, this method always fascinated me, despite how voyeuristic that may seem. Using this literary mechanic allows the author to write in first person using more than one point of view, and is a more personal approach than third-person narratives. It also spares the reader from long descriptive passages that detail the characters' backgrounds. This works particularly well when the exchanges are between two strangers. The difficulty, however, is keeping the "voices" of the different writers clearly distinguishable. This becomes trickier if the letters are from different gendered characters, or if setting is an historical one. Brockmole not only has both these obstacles, but she doubles it by having sets of correspondence from two different eras.


The question then is, does Brockmole deliver? The short answer to this is 'yes.' The more detailed answer reveals this 'yes' grows from a tentative one into a resounding one. As I began reading this book, the two characters, David and Elspeth, immediately captured me. Initially, however, the language of these two early 20th century correspondents seemed just a bit on the overly modern side. Thankfully, this tiny niggle totally dissipated within a handful of pages. As the two get to know each other better, the familiarity between them builds. At the same time, their letters become increasingly lyrical. David's vivaciously mischievous nature plays on Elspeth's secluded shyness, and drawing her out of herself, despite herself.


Brockmole brings us increasingly into these lives and relationship like a slow zoom-in until we reach the close-up of their actual physical meeting. From there, the camera once again widens its angle and takes the two of them in as the Great War unfolds and affects them. Carefully interjected into this is Margaret's investigation into her mother's (and her own) past on the background of WW2. After the bombing incident and her mother's subsequent disappearance, she writes to her fiancé Paul, the RAF pilot in the war. He encourages her with her quest. She also contacts her mother's estranged brother and even winds up on Skye to meet her grandparents for the first time, hoping they and her mother's other brother can help put the puzzle together for her. Both these sets of letters wind together like a carefully choreographed dance, interspersed with Elspeth's new search to find out what happened to David after the previous war.


Margaret's voice in her letters is understandably, strikingly similar to Elspeth's. They are, after all, mother and daughter. On the surface, the two of them seem to be very different. However, as we get to know them both better, we realize how similar they both are, including the parallels of women who fall in love during war. Margaret pieces together the parts of her mother's life, while we watch them unfold in Elspeth's letters with David. Through this, we become even more emotionally involved with all of these characters. Yes, there are bits of the story we can guess, but that doesn't lessen this in the least.


Through the combination of a mystery and decades of a relationship that blooms on the page, Brockmole gives us a perfectly painted portrait of the joys of love and pains of deception that are heightened by the wars that wage around them. Together with this, we are also witness to the stark beauty of Scotland's wild and remote Isle of Skye, and the blatant horrors of the battlefields of France. I can promise you, that by the time you've gotten about a third into this book, you'll find it almost impossible to put it down. Furthermore, when Brockmole brings us to the ultimate climax, I simply dare you not to shed more than a just few tears. For all this, I highly recommend this novel and give it a full five stars out of five. 



"Letters from Skye" by Jessica Brockmole, published July 9, 2013 by Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), the Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or find it at an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for providing me with a copy of this book via NetGalley. This is a revised review of the one published on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady), which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.