The Secret Shore by Liz Fenwick: A gripping, action-packed, love-filled odyssey – book review -
But award-winning author Liz Fenwick, dubbed queen of the contemporary Cornish novel, digs beyond the beauty of her local landscape to unearth a moving tale of danger, daring and romance starring the wartime map girls... those unsung female cartographers who played vital roles in land surveying, meteorology and intelligence.
Mapping was vital to secret operations on the coasts of both Cornwall and occupied Brittany, with extensive, pre-D-Day small boat flotilla runs taking place in the Helford area, but the work of women from the Ordnance Survey Department was never officially rewarded in England or France, and has almost been lost.
And so The Secret Shore is Fenwick’s tribute to the first female cartographers of the Second World War, and an unmissable opportunity to celebrate their achievements in helping to chart out a path to victory... all set against the alluring backdrop of the rugged Cornish coast.
In May of 1942, brilliant geographer and mapmaker, Dr Meredith (Merry) Tremayne has left her teaching post at Oxford University and become one of the Navy’s most skilled cartographers, working in the Admiralty in London under Commander Ian Fleming, the smooth-talking ‘fixer’ of the intelligence service.
As a 27-year-old woman noted for her beauty, Merry is a mystery to her male colleagues who can’t understand how she can devote her life to mapmaking knowing that as a female worker in a professional service, she is forbidden to marry.
But Merry is all too aware that the lives of men fighting in faraway locations depend on her work in the War Office and, as a native of Cornwall and a fluent French and German speaker, her added skills are vital to the accuracy of coastal mapmaking work being carried out at a secret location near the Helford River.
Despite her good looks, which Commander Fleming regards as a danger because ‘beauty is always noted and remembered,’ Merry is posted back to her roots in Cornwall on a secret intelligence mission, and to look into a mystery involving her widowed mother Elise, a French artist whose disappearance has led to rumours that she is a spy.
But as Merry gets on with making coastal maps that could mean life or death for agents on perilous missions to Northern France, the defences she has carefully built around her heart start to crumble when she meets Lieutenant Jake Russell, an enigmatic American naval officer who is taking part in the secret operations.
And as rumours and suspicion swirl around her family, Merry finds herself increasingly drawn to Jake. It’s a dangerous time to fall head over heels in love when the tides of war are rising... and there is everything to lose.
Mystery, romance and the real-life work of the mapmakers prove a thrilling mix in a story that moves from the ravages of bomb-damaged London to the banks of the glorious Helford River where wartime operations were vital to the success of D-Day and played a pivotal role in changing the course of the war.
With intrigue at every turn, the constant threat from across the Channel, and the uncertainties and suspicions of life on the home front, The Secret Shore is a fascinating and immaculately researched account of a hidden corner of wartime, but also an emotion-packed tale of sacrifice, passion, survival and outstanding bravery.
At its heart is Merry, a dedicated, professional woman caught up in a battle between the sense of duty and restraint that has always informed her working life, and a soaring, overwhelming love that threatens to break all the rules.
Providing the perfect backdrop, as always, is Fenwick’s exquisite evocation of glorious Cornwall, the place where this exiled American now lives with her English husband and family, and which she uses as the breathtaking canvas on which to paint her memorable stories.
And there could be none more all-round entertaining than this gripping, action-packed, love-filled odyssey, Fenwick’s most ambitious and powerful novel yet, and a much-needed reminder that it was the painstaking efforts of the mapmakers who laid the ground for the success, or failure, of every battle... and ultimately the war.
A must read this summer!
(HQ, hardback, £14.99)