Stafford begins his novel with the line “Some men had started a war, other men went off to fight it; the living were left with the mess.” This novel is the story of the mess one young woman is left. Philomena Bligh, a seamstress from the north of England, must face life without her fiancé, Dan Case, who was killed only minutes after the armistice of World War I was announced. She feels compelled to travel to London to talk with three men who served with her fiancé. One of the men, a young barrister named Jonathan Priest who was Dan’s close friend, tells her he believes another soldier in her fiancé’s unit killed him over a gambling debt. But what can they do? Philomena is a working girl, Jonathan himself is from a working class family, and the accused is the wealthy son of Jonathan’s mentor, a powerful judge. The army had investigated Jonathan’s accusation and no charges were brought. Philomena can’t let it drop, and Jonathan finds that he wants to help her seek justice for Dan.
Philomena and Jonathan are wonderfully drawn characters, honorable and courageous but not perfect, and I found myself caring deeply about them. One can see the impact of the war on the psyche of the young generation: Philomena’s hands flutter uncontrollably, while Jonathan drinks too much and uses cocaine. Stafford seems to have captured the essence of postwar London. I was carried along by this story of the devastation that war can bring to people’s lives and Philomena and Jonathan’s struggle to overcome.