The Return by Anita Frank: A love story that tugs at the heartstrings – book review –

The bells may be ringing out to mark the end of the war in Europe in 1945 but for Gwen Ellison it’s not a time to celebrate… but to fear.

The Return by Anita Frank
The Return by Anita Frank

Because the world is about to change and her husband Jack’s return home could threaten the comfortable world that she has so carefully built up for herself and her young son on the peaceful family farm in Berkshire.

Anita Frank, whose stunning debut novel, The Lost Ones, was shortlisted for the Goldsboro Books Glass Bell Award and the Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown Award, sweeps us away to the rewards and rigours of the home front during the Second World War in a beautifully written and piercingly insightful tale of love and loss, mystery and sacrifice.

A paean to the rural charms of mid-century England, and yet also a reminder of the back-breaking grind of farming during the war years, The Return is a mesmerising , atmospheric tale which weaves seamlessly through past and present events to explore secrets that have blighted the lives of a young couple.

In May of 1945, the residents of a small village in Berkshire are celebrating Victory in Europe but young wife and mother Gwen Ellison cannot join in the joyful exuberance because the end of the war brings only uncertainty and dread.

Her young son Tom is overcome with excitement because it will mean the return of his father, a man he has never met and who has existed only for him as the face in a photograph on the mantelpiece of their farmhouse.

What Tom doesn’t know yet is that he may never get to see his father because six years ago, on their wedding night, Jack Ellison made a solemn, parting promise to his pregnant bride that he would leave for the war and never return. It was, after all, best for everyone that he didn’t.

And now, for Gwen, the declaration of peace threatens everything she has held dear for the past six years because the war hasn’t endangered Gwen, it has kept her safe. If Jack returns, ‘there is no longer any way to avoid the mess she has made of her life.’

But the war has changed Jack, and he is coming home, determined to claim a place in Gwen’s life… and in her heart. As events of the past come back to haunt them, Jack and Gwen find themselves facing their greatest battle… and it is a fight neither of them can afford to lose.

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Frank casts a spell over her readers in this achingly romantic and gripping story which explores the realities of women’s work on the rural home front when many men were fighting overseas during the six long years of the war.

The secrets that Gwen and Jack are harbouring have huge ramifications for them both, with the past threatening to catch up and destroy not just the tranquillity of life on the farm but the hopes, dreams and futures of those around them.

Shrouded in an air of mystery, and with the suspense slowly building as the pages turn, Frank’s writing is a triumph of pacing and emotional power. But at its heart is a poignant, alluring romance that refuses to be overcome by pain, tragedy and hidden truths.

With a narrative that plays out against a background of gentle bucolic lyricism, a love story that tugs at the heartstrings, and a surprise twist in the tail that cannot fail to please, The Return is an impressive follow-up for an exciting new author.

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(HQ, paperback, £8.99)