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Channel Isles (Jersey)
November 1914 to September 1918: The setting moves between the privileged home of the Baldwyns, the Chevaliers’ farm on Jersey, London, and the Front.
The prologue, dated 1918, tells of the work done by an American sculptress in Paris in helping soldiers to hide their horrific facial injuries by making masks, in copper or tin, to replace the parts blown away. The soldier with the broken face is, like the artist, not named.
The plot deals with a love tangle set against the backdrop of the First World War. When Meredith Sutton finds her fiancé, Charles Baldwyn, in flagrante with his mistress, she breaks the engagement and refuses to have any contact with him. Some months later, still distraught, she turns up on Jersey, at the home of Charles’s best friend, Freddie Chevalier, in search of comfort and a refuge. While out riding, they share a passionate embrace, but Meri stops it from going any further. She leaves early next day.
In spite of his own betrayal of Meri, when Charles believes that Freddie and she have slept together – even though Freddie denies it – he breaks off the friendship. A letter suggestive of betrayal forms the basis of the plot, but Charles reads into it what he wants to see.
This is a novel about women picking up the mess that men make. They do this practically – nursing and driving ambulances; medically – the person remodelling the shattered faces of the soldiers is a woman; socially – breaking down the barriers between classes; and, in its early form, politically – women of higher classes asserting their right to work and proving their abilities to be more than the fragile lady at home to be protected from reality. The simple act of cutting their long hair to a more practical bob is symbolic: initially shocking but ultimately accepted as necessary.
The damage of all kinds is done by men. Charles’ double standards are inherited, and ruin more lives than merely his own, and Hamilton-Browne cashes in on this to destroy a long-held friendship. Lord Baldwyn’s own hypocrisy and the aftermath could destroy his wife, and may shatter other dreams. The scenes of battle, trench and hospital are well written. While many will die from their wounds, it is interesting to discover how much attention was paid to those who survived in order to help them to face the world with their own broken faces. Was this just for officers, as it is shown here? It’s not clear.
Facial reconstruction itself is not at the heart of the story; it’s peripheral, allowing certain movements and character revelations. But it is a metaphor; it’s not just the broken faces of the soldiers which must be seen as mended, but the facade of gentility and the patriarchal society that causes such horror.
The young women are strong and generous, and courageous too, as the excellent cover suggests. Charles is unfortunately not a likeable character, and Freddie could be stronger in the face of his friend’s obduracy. The book would benefit from closer editing to remove several errors and some inconsistencies, but as a novel about women at war, it is eminently readable.
© Lorraine Swoboda