Sunday 24 September 2017

WWI debut delivers passion and betrayal with a bang

White Feathers, Susan Lanigan Brandon Books, €14.99

Love and war: The carnage of World War I forms the backdrop to Susan Lanigan’s debut novel
Love and war: The carnage of World War I forms the backdrop to Susan Lanigan’s debut novel

Síle McArdle

IRISH novelist Susan Lanigan's passionate debut, White Feathers, is - and fittingly so - a complicated novel set in that most complex of times: the lead-up to and outbreak of World War I.

Bright, brave, bullied Eva Downey was wrenched from a genteel life in Cork at the age of six after her idolised mother died and her weak father married again.

During 11 years in dreary east London, Eva and her consumptive sister, Imelda, become achingly familiar with war on the home front - thanks to violent step-mother Catherine and her jealous ill-named daughter, Grace.

When Eva is left a suffragette's legacy to finish her education, however, it becomes the catalyst for change the 17-year-old so richly deserves.

White Feathers opens with the self-sufficient teenager's train journey in September 1913 to The Links School for Young Ladies in Sussex, 10 months before the so-called Great War is declared.

Sure enough, Eva learns far more at this school than deportment and needlepoint - especially via her meeting of minds with acerbic English tutor Christopher Shandlin.

Susan Lanigan's novel is, for the most part, written credibly in the language of its time, with class divides ably bridged or kept distinct as necessary.

Moreover, there's a completeness about the writing; a rounded elegance which clearly reflects the serious research and thought invested in both its inception and delivery.

Too much detail can jar, though - as in some of the literature-laden repartee between Eva and her tutor Shandlin as their attraction grows.

The novel's tipping point is Eva's wretched back story: on borrowed time at The Links, before term ends she is summoned home as Imelda's health worsens.

There, her stepfamily find it easier to sabotage feisty Eva. They ruin her now-serious romance with Shandlin by forcing her to pin a white feather upon him for not signing up to serve (he has very sound reasons), using treatment for dying Imelda as their blackmail tool.

Naturally, the fallout is desperate and desolate.

But will her shattered chance of happiness break Eva, or can she fight on for lost reputation and honour in peacetime?

White Feathers combines love, suspense and an uneasy sense of adventure with the savagery of front-line slaughter - alongside gutsy sub-plots of rape, abortion and lesbianism.

Although slightly uneven in places, this is a stirring first novel to be read more than once.

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