Past Encounters

Written by Deborah Swift
Review by Christine Childs

Deborah Swift is a British writer of historical novels. This book was originally released under a pen name, Davina Blake, in 2014. Past Encounters occurs over a fifteen-year period, switching backwards and forwards, from 1939 to 1945 and the later period of 1955. Its title stems from the 1944 film Brief Encounters, filmed in a Northern English railway station. Swift focuses some of the action of the novel on the Brief Encounters set, an environment she is comfortable with from her earlier work in television and theatre.

The main characters are Rhoda and Peter Middleton, a young engaged couple on the eve of World War 2. Rhoda is written in first person, whereas Peter and supporting roles are third person, giving readers greater insight and empathy into Rhoda’s thoughts.

Peter, a schoolteacher, signed up for active service and was captured and held in German prison camps for most of the war. His longing for Rhoda and friendship with a fellow prisoner, Archie, are all that sustained him through horrific experiences of torture and deprivation. Meanwhile, Rhoda’s war was about waiting. Letters from Peter were delayed for years, and she began to doubt whether she’d ever see him again. Her only escape from this, and her dysfunctional family, was when the Brief Encounters film crew came to town, and she served the cast and crew with refreshments.

Fast-forward ten years. Peter and Rhoda seem decades older than they should be, married, but living emotionally distant lives, each with their own buried secrets, their relationship in tatters.

What separates Past Encounters from a simple wartime story of love and loss are the psychological depiction of the characters, Swift’s skillful highjack of real events to describe ordinary life in war-torn England, the prisoners’ Great March through the snow, and the novelty of the Brief Encounters film set.