When Miss Bates was in graduate school many years ago, she read Paul Fussell’s Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars. She went on to read Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, (which she still counts among her favourite books) and all of Wilfred Owen’s poetry. As she completed her graduate studies, Pat Barker’s World War I trilogy was published, Regeneration, The Eye In the Door, and The Ghost Road, and Miss Bates devoured them in singular sittings. “The Great War” was a line in the sand in Western history and we experience its repercussions still. Her reading and rereading of these great books and fascination with the era and its aftermath remain. It follows that she was disposed to be interested in, if not to like, Simone St. James’s post-Great-War mystery-ghost-story-historical-romance Silence For the Dead. She found that she loved it! Its echo of history’s ghosts, their haunting of us, the experience of ordinary, working-class people, the crossing of the dividing-line between classes that the trenches entailed, the walking wounded that are its legacy … all of that and more is in St. James’s hybrid novel of romantic suspense, closed-room mystery, ghost story, and one gloriously rendered romance of friendship, respect, love, humour, and desire. Like most thrillers, it lost some of these wonderful threads in the solving of the mystery as it lapsed into sensationalism, a niggling point in light of its wunder-HEA, however. 😉 If you read one mystery with really “strong romantic elements” this year, it should be this one.
“They’re quiet as ghosts.” Says the cabdriver who delivers nurse-heroine Kitty Weekes to Portis House, an isolated estate functioning as an asylum for shell-shocked WWI veterans. Except he’s not talking about the former-soldier patients, but the fleeing nurses. They leave. Why? “Something rotten” is here and Kitty walks into it. Kitty is a sad and desperate young woman. On the ride to Portis House, “My silence seemed to make him [the cabdriver] uncomfortable, had done so for miles.” Her silence harbors secrets, difficult, traumatic secrets, secrets that will be cracked open under the pressure of the soldiers’ traumas, ones that echo her own. If the veterans are survivors of a political war, Kitty is the survivor of a domestic one, a war waged on her in blows and humiliation by her father. She is silent, wary, frightened, and carries her own ghosts into the haunted, rigidly-run estate. There are nineteen men housed in Portis House, run by Matron, a seemingly hard-assed nurse-administrator, but she, like everything else here, is not what she appears. Neither is Kitty, who is no nurse, but a fired factory-girl on the run from her father. She arrives under pretense and remains because she is kind, caring, and smart. There are things she discovers about herself in this house, amidst creaking floorboards, groaning pipes, and nightly spectres, pale ethereal ones, as well as those that terrorize the patients in nightmares.
“Lonely is what I want.” Miss Bates did not immediately warm to Kitty Weekes. That could have been a potential flaw in the narrative if you need to feel instant “relatability” to a character. Thankfully, Miss B. eschews that requirement. She likes a hard-to-warm-to heroine, but she’s more exacting of the hero. St. James is obviously a “kindred spirit” for she provides both masterfully. Kitty is lying, taking on responsibility for others’ well-being without qualifications, but she cares, studies, and tries so hard. She is beset by feelings of worthlessness in light of the deception she’s imposing on them. She does her best to learn, to gentle, and to listen. And, she grows into her role. When we finally learn what happened to her, our sympathy and liking are as engaged as our respect, ” … [when] you’ve been held down on the dirty linoleum by a man twice your size, the blade of a kitchen knife put in your mouth as he tells you to be quiet or he’ll cut out your tongue, something inside you shifts.” She grieves for her patients and we grieve with her, “I could do nothing for them. I could do nothing for any of them, not even for myself. I tried to say something else. Something important that burned my throat and at the backs of my eyes. But nothing came, and I could only stand helpless with hot tears moving down my face.” This tone dominates the first half of the novel. Its over-riding motif is silence: the silence of fear, the inarticulateness of that we dare not speak, the shameful secrets, the dirty laundery of experience and thought. Kitty is silently suffering and so are the broken former soldiers. But St. James cleverly leads us, along with her characters, to demand why? The answers are as old as Homer’s Iliad: honour is a hollow word when blind, self-serving power players, political or domestic bullies, hold sway over ordinary people’s lives. Silence must be broken to free them.
“Dead is never better. Never. The war taught us that.” Silence has many meanings in St. James’s novel and she adroitly navigates them for us. Silent ghosts haunt Portis House because they are a powerful symbol of the dead seeking justice and reparation from the living; only the living can set them to rest. It is in our power. Kitty heals as she serves others and allows herself to be cared for, especially by one broken hero, Jack Yates. Jack has his own terrible story: an orphan, adopted by middle-aged farmers, his heroic taking of a piece of No Man’s Land led the authorities to use him as a spokesman for the war effort. He went along, barely aware, from exhaustion and grief, of what they demanded of him. Now, after the war, and he is yet Brave Jack Yates; learning of the death of all his men, he despairs and an attempt to take his own life brings him to Portis House. Kitty recognizes him for the people’s hero she knew from newspapers. He was the embodiment of the common man in the trenches, one identifiable of the anonymous ones, as Kitty says, ” … someone without a title, someone who had to work for a living, could matter. Thousands of men like that die every day, our sweethearts and husbands and brothers and cousins, and none of them mattered a damn.” Therein lies the war’s tragedy, that the loss was for naught, that it was purposeless. Jack knows this too and it suits the powers-that-be to silence him, ” “He doesn’t talk to the other patients. We aren’t allowed to mention him by name.’ ” and ” ‘Patient Sixteen came to us with instructions from the highest level of government … that his stay here was to remain confidential.” Kitty and Jack are attracted to each other. St. James writes a novel for adults when she has her characters communicate instead of experiencing insta-lust. Their communications are sexy, though, sensuous, and moving: some are silent (a single salute through a window glimpsed, a smile; at Portis House, by the end, justice is served and even silence is redeemed by loving gesture), but there are words, healing words, confessions, avowals; here is a sampling, “I felt the stirrings of a burning, angry dissatisfaction. I started trying to understand … angry words like Mons and Passchendaele and Ypres, incalculable numbers of dead, ships sunk, blurry photographs of battles.” Pain connects our hero and heroine; in words to each other, to the men, and eventually a shared purpose, and airing silent, shameful secrets, bring peace.
“Something sounded in me… “ says Kitty, when she becomes aware, physically and spiritually, of Jack Yates, “deep down like a bell being struck in the depths of the ocean, something that saddened and frightened me.” Don’t mistake this phrase for a lugubrious one: it is our heroine coming awake, ready to speak, ready to listen to the men, their stories, and especially Jack’s. He calls to her like Rochester does to Jane, even while the mad and weak and ghosts gather forces like an army, “All was silent for a long, black moment, long enough for me to consider retreating from the room as quietly as I had come … ‘Nurse Weekes.’ That voice. So soft now, in the depths of the night. Intimate.” Intimacy, connection, support, and caring are part of one of the loveliest renditions of sheer physical attraction Miss Bates has read in a long while, “He leaned a little further forward, his gaze soft on me. ‘You’re damned beautiful.’ Something jarred inside me like a shard of glass.” Miss Bates loved this imagery of bells and glass as our heroine is startled awake, out of fear and worthlessness, to a sense of her own power, her own strength. Jack is so absolutely lovely, St. James’s touch so delicate in writing of our heroine’s trauma. Indeed, dear reader, this novel is worth reading for the scene where Jack lets Kitty ogle him, where he gives her all the power. He knows how to give her space, support her without interfering or playing the he-man. Just what she needs to bring herself out of the silence to admit, “I could be afraid, and I could still do this, still do anything I wanted … he’d come back from that dark, dark place he’d been … both of us had thought ourselves alone in the world, and … we’d both been wrong.” St. James’s novel is strictly closed-door love-making, but it is no less sensuous and heart-wrenching. Miss Bates loved these two, rooted for them, and likes to think of them happy and free, talking, holding hands over a shared table, a shared life.
Simone St. James has penned a wonderful novel and Miss Bates encourages you to read it; therein, she found “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. (Miss Bates hasn’t read Simone St. James’s first two novels, The Haunting of Maddy Clare and An Inquiry Into Love and Death, but they’re making their way to her as she writes and as you read this, dear reader.)
Simone St. James’s Silence For the Dead is published by NAL (Penguin) and has been available in paper and e-format since April 1st, at the usual places.
Recently, we heard of the passing of many romance readers’ much beloved Mary Stewart, who also wrote frisson-inducing romantic suspense of the gothic variety. Susanna Kearsley is another favourite. (And even one of Miss Bates’s great 2014 reads, Jeannie Lin’s Jade Temptress, is of hybrid ilk: part mystery, part historical fiction, part romance.) Miss Bates is really liking these writers’ combination of mystery, gentle, contemplative heroines, and quietly ominous air of “something rotten” in the heroines’ confrontations with the unknown. Are you a fan, dear reader? What do you like about these types of books and/or authors? What are some of your favourites? And what appeals in them for you?