Tuesday, 8 January 2019

We That Are Left by Clare Clark

We That Are Left by Clare Clark
First published in the UK by Houghton Mifflin in October 2015.

Featured in 5Books1Theme: The Great War

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Two sisters, born into privilege, are forced to make their way in a world turned upside down by war. One man transforms them both.

1910. Jessica and Phyllis Melville have grown up at Ellinghurst, a family estate fraught with secrets. A headstrong beauty, Jessica longs for London -- the glitter and glamour of debutante life -- while bookish Phyllis dreams in vain of attending university. Into their midst walks Oskar Grunewald, a frequent visitor fascinated by the house but alternately tormented and ignored by the Melville children. Oskar seeks refuge in Ellinghurst's enormous library. Meanwhile Theo, the adored Melville brother, eclipses everyone around him.

The Great War arrives to devastate and reshape their world. In a country unrecognizable from the idylls of their youth, the Melville sisters struggle to forge new paths without the guidance of the old rules. But Oskar's life has become entwined with theirs once again, in ways--both immediate and unimaginable-- that will change all of their futures.

With elegance and insight, in prose characteristically "stirring and seductive" (The Economist) Clare Clark brings us a new story of a kind of old family whose reckoning with change will haunt and resonate for many generations.

I had We That Are Left on my Kindle for several weeks before I actually got around to reading it, other books that looked as though they would be 'better' floating to the top of my TBR list first. What a mistake! From almost the first page I was gripped by the Edwardian world and lives of the Melville family.

Clark's novel is set during the First World War and the years immediately preceding and following it. This was a time of immense social upheaval in Britain, not just because of the horrific loss of male lives, but also because women began to assert themselves as they had not done before and strict class divides started to crumble. All this is captured here, interestingly, through a cast of mostly spoilt upper class characters who aren't particularly likeable but whom I found compelling. I did sympathise with Oskar for much of the book and, obviously, identified with bookworm Phyllis. The other Melvilles and friends I thoroughly enjoyed reading about and appreciated seeing their world view, but they were terrible people!

We That Are Left is permeated with a powerful sense of loss and change as characters die, choose travel and work, or are consumed by grief and obsession. There is a moving poignancy to the fragmenting family, but Clark also depicts the excitement and hope of potential new opportunities. I liked how 1920s crazes like Spiritualism and jazz nightclubs were interwoven together with historic events, both war-related and otherwise. Will Carter find anything in the Egyptian desert?! Great book!

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  1. I must get this. I love this time period and this type of set up. Engaging review, Stephanie!

  2. This sounds really interesting! I've always had a soft spot for historical fiction and the whole 'their awful people and have to deal with the aftermath of this awful event' thing sounds like it creates some really great conflict both inner and outer. Definitely going on my TBR. Lovely review, Stephanie!

    Laura @BlueEyeBooks

    1. I loved this novel and hope that you will too :-)

  3. I always find myself kicking myself as well when I discover a gem that has been waiting around on my shelf for ages. It sounds like a wonderful novel, and I really like the themes it handles and deals with in the post war setting. Brilliant review :)

    1. I initially loved the synopsis, but then randomly decided that perhaps it wasn't my sort of story. What a mistake! Tis brilliant!