Set against the backdrop of WW1 and, more specifically, shortly before and during the Battle of the Somme, this first part of a trilogy centres on the relationship between nurse Helen Sandford and artist Sebastian Trewby. As their different backgrounds collide, Helen lies about her age and signs up as a nurse to the Forward Medical Station near the Somme, and Sebastian enlists in the army. Helen finds herself having to make life and death decisions about who’ll survive and who won’t, while Sebastian fights to protect his men against the senseless slaughter of the trenches.
Dusk is beautifully written in places, with plenty of imagery, for example, ‘dawn would flush the horizon, bringing a false rosy glow to the dead world’, and the relationship between Helen and Sebastian develops at a suitably slow rate, culminating in a tender romance. The camaraderie among the men in Sebastian’s unit is touching and, despite their joking about, the author manages to create a true sense of fear. The references to moths and butterflies are both poetic and clever, and Helen’s exquisite tiger box functions as an anchor to a gentler time in a world of hatred and destruction.
However, there are instances where the author resorts to cliché, e.g. Helen’s troubled relationship with her domineering father, and Sebastian’s fellow soldier, a cheeky chappy Cockney. Also, the story jumps back and forth in time which, sadly, made it hard to become emotionally engaged, at least not until the end, and it would have benefited from being told in chronological order.
With life in the trenches reminiscent of Pat Barker’s Regeneration, and with plenty of blood and guts in the hospital scenes, too, I would rate this novel as suitable for the 17+ age group.