Book review: Past Encounters by Davina Blake

The windswept, curving platform of Carnforth railway station became an unforgettable part of big screen history when a film crew arrived there in 1945.

Thursday, 23rd October 2014, 10:00 am
Past Encounters by Davina Blake
Past Encounters by Davina Blake

Brief Encounter, a romantic tearjerker made even more memorable by the soaring strains of Rachmaninov’s music, centred on the quiet desperation of an illicit love affair between two married, middle-class people who meet regularly at the station.

Nearly 70 years later, the station and its famous refreshment room take centre stage again in a beautiful, heartbreaking story of a couple caught up in the cruel winds of war, battered by the fickleness of fate and imprisoned by secrets from the past.

Davina Blake, a north Lancashire writer also known as Deborah Swift, is the author of a series of exciting historical novels including The Lady’s Slipper, set in 17th century rural Westmorland, The Gilded Lily and A Divided Inheritance.

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Blake has often used the landscape around her home in Warton, near Carnforth, as a source of inspiration for her compelling novels and in Past Encounters, she takes us on an emotional journey from the atmospheric filming of Brief Encounter to the extraordinary Great March of prisoners of war through snow-bound Germany in 1945.

It’s 1955 and almost ten years since Peter and Rhoda Middleton from Carnforth married in the aftermath of the Second World War. Their marriage seems to be little more than an empty shell, the two of them conducting their daily lives in a vacuum of work and domestic routine.

They became engaged in 1940 shortly before schoolteacher Peter left for France to serve as a driver with a local regiment. Within months he was captured by the Germans and transported to various PoW camps before spending the rest of the war near the Polish border.

Meanwhile Rhoda plodded on until she found herself in the middle of an exciting and exhilarating film set when the cast and crew of Brief Encounter descended on Carnforth railway station where she worked on the book stall.

By the time Peter returned, they were virtual strangers with both unprepared to discuss their wartime lives and experiences, forced apart by memories, personal traumas and secrets.

But when Rhoda opens a letter from another woman, she becomes convinced that Peter, her seemingly quiet, well-mannered and conventional husband, is having an affair.

Rhoda tracks down the mysterious woman, Helen Foster, only to discover that she is not Peter’s lover but the wife of his close wartime friend Archie who died only a few months ago.

The problem for Rhoda is that she has never even heard of Archie and is shocked that Peter has been regularly visiting the couple’s home in Lancaster for years without even informing her of their existence.

With the help of Helen, and Archie’s wartime photographs and memorabilia, Rhoda slowly starts to uncover devastating truths about Peter’s captivity and his struggle to survive deprivation, hunger and brutal treatment.

Now the dust has been disturbed and there is ‘nothing to weigh the past down,’ Peter must confront a shameful incident that has haunted him down the years and Rhoda is forced to revisit a secret from those heady days of filming on the set of Brief Encounter.

Together they discover that you can never put the past behind you because the truth is that it’s forever a part of you…

Blake is a deeply immersive writer who brings us not just authentic history and a feel for time and place, but also an impressive depiction of real people and a genuine emotional connection to their everyday lives, their hopes, their fears and their suffering.

As always, her research is immaculate as she resurrects the making of an iconic film, and the devastating Great March in the early months of 1945 in which 30,000 Allied PoWs were force-marched westward across Poland and Germany in appalling winter conditions, hundreds of them dying from bitter cold and exhaustion.

Many of those who survived bottled up their memories, sometimes with devastating psychological consequences, and it is this aspect of war that Blake explores with insight, sensitivity and credibility.

Past Encounters is a beautifully written and though-provoking story, an imaginative and emotive way to celebrate a fascinating slice of local history, pay a poignant tribute to the suffering of forgotten wartime heroes and explore the heavy price paid by families torn apart by separation and conflict.

(CreateSpace, paperback, £8.99)