1917, and Clementine Armstrong (Clem) is a VAD nurse on the Western Front. She volunteered to work on the frontline against the explicit wishes of her wealthy family after the death of her younger brother Ralph at Ypres in the early days of the Great War. Clem is exposed to enormous and almost unconceivable suffering and, rebelling against her engagement to Dr. Dennis Everett, who works as a general practitioner back in England, falls for a frontline Canadian doctor, Powell Bonneville. But he is killed in a shell attack, and Clem loses their foetus she was carrying.
All this occurs in the opening pages of the novel and establishes the foundation for Clem’s return to England, where her life resumes the track-lines already established for her, and she marries Dennis and has a baby son. In 1920, while on a visit to her sister-in-law, she is involved in a motorcycle crash with a Sergeant Vince Fortune coming off his machine and suffering some minor injuries. Fortune has been heavily disfigured by the war, and we see how he tries to make a new life for himself in his reduced circumstances. He helps out at a local inn and has romantic designs upon the buxom landlady Doll Pepper. Both Clem and Vince Fortune, damaged in different ways by the Great War, develop an unlikely connection; Clem is naïve and gets dragged into a most difficult set of circumstances.
It is an extraordinarily moving and beautifully observed tale. Lesley Glaister’s writing is pitch perfect: she has the touch of the true writer and observer of the human condition and this is one of those rare books when I just wanted to story to go on and on. It felt far too soon to be parted from Clem and her Suffolk world of a century ago, which has now also long gone.