Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review, "Letters from Skye"

Letters from Skye, by Jessica Brochmole
Ballantine Books, to be published in July 2013

“Letters from Skye” is an epistolary novel – revealed completely through letters. But it has a twist, in that the letters are exchanged during two separate wars, by two couples linked by a mother-daughter relationship.
Elspeth Dunn, 24, married and lonely, is a young poet living on Scotland’s Isle of Skye in 1912. Her work has been published and has met with some success when she receives a fan letter from a young American, David Graham. Their friendship in letters deepens with time and becomes love when Elspeth realizes she shares more of an emotional bond with David than her own distant, gruff soldier-husband. David’s subsequent enrollment in the war, as an ambulance driver, brings him closer to Elspeth’s world.
But another voice—and another exchange of letters—enters the story with Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, in 1940. Margaret is in love with her childhood friend Paul, a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Their letters begin to document a love story from another generation, unencumbered by some of the societal constrictions Elspeth and David faced, and undiluted by the Elspeth’s warnings to her daughter that a relationship during wartime is troubled from the start.
Margaret is unaffected by her mother’s dire predictions, but when Elspeth disappears after Margaret has read one of a collection of letters found in her mother’s belongings, Margaret sets out to find her—and discover her mother’s secrets.
The intertwined letters of mother and daughter, against the love stories woven between lovers during two world wars, reveal no villains or tragic flaws. More, they reflect the tragedies that occur in a world shaken by war. Hunger, suspicion, betrayal, deception, and grief all wrap themselves around Elspeth when she falls in love with David, risking her family’s approval. In the 1940s, however, we find these deathly courtiers mostly absent from Margaret’s life. Her fears for Paul’s safety, and terror at his silences, are met with her lover’s reassurance, his support, his unfailing love.
Reading Elspeth’s story, as we are drawn deeper into the exchange of letters she shares with David, we wonder what has happened since the first war to leave Elspeth alone, or nearly so, and deeply saddened by her life. How, we wonder, could someone as devoted to her as David seems to be have left? Or did he die?
Brockmole’s upcoming novel, being published in July, explores this mystery patiently, as time passes and lovers are lost, regained, and lost again. With the unraveling comes the tension created by a skilled storyteller, teasing the reader with allusions to the present decade and World War II, played against the very different love story of Elspeth. Will she and her daughter shared the same fate—and what, in truth, was that fate? We won’t know until, like voyeurs exploring an attic box of letters, we come upon the last letter.
  “Letters from Skye” is a good read, one that brings to life the fears and losses of wartime in any generation—but especially during these two seminal wars. Brockmole’s writing style is simple and light, unfettered by plot confusion or too much time travel between scenes. The lack of much complexity in the characters is a disappointment, but not a deal breaker. There is insight into their hearts and minds, revealing courage and allowing the reader to watch as they weigh their options and make their choices, for better or worse.
This format is a little unusual, but not unique: Wilkie Collins and Bram Stroker employed it in their novels, and Mary Shelley dramatized “Frankenstein” through letters. It’s a little hard to embark without the aid of a narrator, but one soon learns enough through the letters to feel close to the characters and their trials.