Book review: Last Letter Home by Rachel Hore
A young historian's holiday in Naples becomes an emotional journey into a long-lost wartime love affair in a beautiful and evocative novel from bestselling author Rachel Hore.
Hore, who worked in London publishing for many years and now teaches at the University of East Anglia, has become a master of the time-slip novel and here she weaves between Italy and rural Norfolk in a gripping story of secrets, betrayal and tragedy spanning 70 years.
At its heart is Briony Wood, plagued by uncertainty, still crippled by events in her childhood, suffering because her work and confidence has been eroded, but whose sense of purpose is galvanised by her quest to discover the truth behind a pair of star-crossed lovers whose lives were torn apart by the Second World War.
Using a bundle of faded letters, an old film reel, the secrets hidden inside a crumbling Italian villa and her grandfather’s wartime connections, Briony must piece together the past if there is to be closure in the present.
Briony Wood has been having a bad time; a guest appearance on a TV chat show to discuss her new book led to her being targeted by cruel, sexist cyber trolls and even though the furore has died down, she is unsettled and afraid.
So when she is invited to join friends on a holiday at a villa in the small town of Tuana in the mountains near Mount Vesuvius, she jumps at the chance. And it’s there that she comes across the ruined but hauntingly beautiful Villa Teresa, a place imbued with a sense of loneliness and melancholy.
Briony is doubly intrigued by the villa because her grandfather was a British soldier during the Italian campaign of 1943 and was stationed in the area. When Mariella, a maid at the villa where she is staying, learns of Briony’s family connections to Villa Teresa, she gives her an old film reel and a tattered bundle of letters that were found there after the war.
The sender of the letters was a woman called Sarah Bailey from Norfolk who was writing to a man called Paul Hartmann and Briony is determined to dig deep and discover their fates.
In 1938, Sarah Bailey is mourning the sudden death of her father and returns from India with her mother Belinda and younger sister Diane to take up residence at Flint Cottage in the Norfolk village of Westbury.
There she forms a friendship with Paul Hartmann, a young half-German, half-Englishman who fled the Nazis a year ago and has found sanctuary at the local manor house, Westbury Hall, where he is working as a gardener. With the outbreak of war, conflicts of loyalty in Westbury deepen and the bond that has grown between Sarah and Paul is in danger of being torn apart.
When Briony begins to uncover Sarah and Paul’s story, she encounters resentments and secrets that are still tightly guarded. What happened long ago in the villa in the shadow of Vesuvius, she suspects, still has the power to give terrible pain…
Last Letter Home sees Hore doing what she does best… creating a dazzling panoramic story that crosses time and countries whilst exploring the lives and loves of two strong but troubled young women as they fight prejudice and expectations decades apart.
This is a complex and clever story, written with Hore’s keen eye for time and place, but also brimming with her emotional intelligence, a cast of perfectly portrayed characters and slipping effortlessly between the lives of Briony and Sarah.
Beautifully written, carefully researched and with an intriguing dual timeline, this is a warm and compelling story of love, family and friendship with real history at its heart.
(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £14.99)