Thursday 18 January 2018

A gripping novel dealing with the complexities of post-war London

Fiction: The New Mrs Clifton, Elizabeth Buchan, Michael Joseph, €12.99

The New Mrs Clifton
The New Mrs Clifton

Claire Coughlan

The New Mrs Clifton opens with a short prologue set in the 1970s, where an unnamed couple move into a Victorian house on a terraced street in Clapham, delighted with its potential.

The man is digging the spacious back garden when his spade hits an unexpected obstruction in the soil. It turns out to be a human skeleton, entwined within the roots of a sycamore tree.

The couple call the police and the subsequent investigation and report from the pathologist concludes that the skeleton belongs to a woman, who was killed with blunt force trauma to the head between 1945 and 1947. The woman was between 25-30 years of age, five-foot four to five-foot six in height, and she had had a child. This nicely sets up the mystery contained within the novel - who is killed and why?

The main action of the book is set in the aftermath of World War II in the bomb-damaged house on the terraced street that was described in the prologue.

Gus Clifton has returned to London from Berlin with a German bride, the enigmatic Krista, who has seen and experienced terrible, unspeakable things in her home city during the last days of the war. Gus's sisters, RAF widow Julia and the bohemian Tilly are reluctant to accept interloper Krista as the new female head of the household and the wider community in general has difficulty with the appearance of a German in its midst.

The characters in The New Mrs Clifton are well drawn - particularly Krista, who seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder with all she has witnessed and experienced, as well as guilt at having been the one to survive. During the Fall of Berlin in 1945, Krista and her friend Lotte sheltered in the convent where Krista was brought up. Lotte and all the nuns were killed, so Krista is a lone survivor - and, it is implied - she has done whatever it takes along the way.

The story is, in theory, a gripping one - and from the start it is clear that the skeleton from the prologue could be any of the three women in the house.

However, the pace is quite slow and it takes a long time to reach the big reveal of what happened. But with such a vivid, thought-provoking evocation of life in ravaged, post-war London, there's plenty to enjoy along the way.

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