Broke my heart over and over a million times how beautiful and heart wrenching this tale is.
The interwar years is a particularly fascinating era for me, but is usually explored looking through the luxurious and Americanised lens of Jazz and Flappers or come the Thirties, Depression and Misery, the immediate post-war period and its social impact is something less obvious in general culture though thankfully more and more explored since Downton Abbey, and also thanks to Peaky Blinders and I must say particularly well by writers for children and young people.
Sally Nicholls is a powerhouse of historical writing for children and I’m delighted to see her both writing in this era and touching on a subject that would have been a real dilemma in this time for young women, and in part touches on personal history.
Margot is coming home for Christmas 1919.
So is Harry, the village doctor’s son and her once fiancé and he has written that he wants to talk.
And Margot is fizzing with nerves because everything has changed since the last time Margot saw Harry, (and soon after declared MIA) and if she ever wants to move forward she is going to have to confess something, something earth shattering that has been tearing her apart.
Clearly things couldn’t go on like this.This secret should never have been kept from him. One way or another, they were going to have to face it.
The Silent Stars Go By touches on so many social historical points from the Single Women phenomenon of the post Great War era to the emerging realities of veterans PTSD (in various guises) in a society that encourages stiff upper lip and dulce et decorum est pro patria mori as touched upon by Wilfred Owen’s famous poem.
The closeness yet distance of the war in the year after Armistice with the push and desperation to ‘return’ to a normal that can never exist again when a generation of men were blown to bits metaphorically or literally in the fields of Europe. Nor when a young woman has made difficult decisions to give herself a fresh chance at a life after a loved one was declared MIA.
I think it’s going to be rather a queer Christmas this year. Our first real one since the War- with everyone here, I mean.
My own great grandmother although not with child, lost her beloved fiancé in the war and married hastily to my great grandfather who in her family’s opinion was not a good match for her at all, which lead to disownment and my grandmother and her siblings growing up in poverty rather than the comfort and luxury her mother did. The decisions made to not be left on the shelf against the pain of pining for a lost one is something that was a cold reality for so many young women at the time of this novel and so endeared me to the social history explored in the novel.
The bittersweet of Margot’s pain and envy at seeing her friend’s marriage and motherhood which is to the outside reader not quite the happiest ever after underpins and helps the younger perhaps worldlier modern reader to understand just what Margot is tearing herself apart craving.
To her horror she felt tears coming into her eyes. She had given James to her mother and father. Hadn’t she?…So why couldn’t she let him go?
The theme of shame particularly feminine shame is embedded throughout the novel; from Margot on so many levels, as a failed mother, as desiring to be a mother, as a daughter to the local adored vicar and for her desires for Harry that led to the situation that is a secret shame.
There is also the exploration of male shame in the aftermath of World War I through two perspectives from the family hushing up problems in the ‘we do not talk about it’ approach to Margot’s brother’s PTSD and survivors guilt and then Harry’s shame of ‘sitting it out’ albeit starving in a POW camp (!) when other boys were suffering and dying in the trenches. The paradoxical shame of having lived; having escaped ‘unscathed’ or indeed survived and are ‘scathed’. I’ve seen PTSD being dealt with masterfully but not so poignantly and juxtaposed have I seen survivor’s guilt making this a rather special one.
France was supposed to be simple. Duty and honour and all that. Look where that led us.
But there is also shame in the light of retrospect, of how dreadfully uncomfortable it is for those ‘in the know’ of all secrets to be around each other, and how so dreadfully different it could have all been in the ‘right’ circumstances.
I think it underpins just how much of a mess all came out of The Great War with and how much hope was desperately needed.
And also how much Christmas can bring redemption and hope, not necessarily in a religiousy way, human to human healing way.
The house was full of expectation and excitement- cooking smells coming from the kitchen, shouts from the children, people disappearing into rooms to write Christmas cards and wrap presents and plan complicated secrets.
There is a nostalgic warmth and beauty in the way we explore the simplicity of the post war Christmas and T’wixmas in the vicarage heaving with children, preparing gifts for the needy, organising events at the heart and engine of village social life act as reminders of how communities once were in history and how long before we closed our doors in lockdown we had largely closed our doors to immersion in local community, alongside the not so nice sides of that with gossip and judging eyes.
Whilst equally we see the festive rhythm a of the seasons are universal from secret frenzy of wrapping to the bittersweet pain that we feel with each turn of the year.
This book has strong appeal beyond the young adult market. It’s got just enough romance to not be tooooo clean for grown ups but is basically clean (obviously there’s reference to the characters having sex as there’s a secret baby but it’s not descriptive or graphic) enough for younger teens.
Perfect for those who love the sweeping historical romance of Downton Abbey, the historical grit of Peaky Blinders, anyone who love a good weepy (yes I needed tissues) and of course perfect for those who love books set at Christmas time.
How could you grieve for someone who was running about like a little cherub in gingham rompers shouting ‘Book Margot!’
I am buying quite a few copies of this book for grown ups as gifts as I know they will love this universal tale of hope and heartbreak and love.
The Silent Stars Go By by Sally Nicholls is published by Anderson Press.
Thank you to Sally and Anderson Press & Walker Books for my proof and final review copy.