Monday 18 February 2019

'We Must be Brave' is a deeply felt novel about love, loss and unintended consequences

Fiction: We Must be Brave

Frances Liardet

Fourth Estate, hardback, 432 pages, €16

Frances Liardet's only other novel was published 25 years ago.
Frances Liardet's only other novel was published 25 years ago.
Long wait: Frances Liardet's only other novel was published 25 years ago
We Must be Brave by Frances Liardet

John Boland

Towards the end of Frances Liardet's deeply felt novel about love, loss and the passing of time, the now middle-aged Ellen tries to explain to a young girl how, 30 years earlier, she had let another young girl be taken away from her. "We thought it was for the best," she says.

That would have made an appropriate, if unwieldy, title for a book that spans 70 years and explores how the best of intentions can lead to the cruellest of consequences, both for those who make the crucial decisions and those with no say in the matter.

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The story begins in 1940 in the rustic village of Upton, just outside Southampton, which has just been bombed by the Germans.

The newly married Ellen Parr is helping evacuees get off a bus when she discovers five-year-old Pamela, who's on her own and keeps asking about her mother.

The mother has been killed in the bombing and the absent father's whereabouts are unknown, so Ellen takes the frightened child in and brings her up as her own until the father eventually turns up and persuades a bereft Ellen that Pamela should be raised by his sister in Ireland, where she'd be safe from the war's dangers.

Ellen, who has had a traumatic upbringing herself ("I was a child like her. A child who lost everything in the world"), never gets over this parting and for the next 30 years she writes letters to Pamela - though all of them unsent as she had agreed from the outset that it was best for Pamela's well-being not to maintain any contact with her. Then in middle age, and now widowed, Ellen meets another troubled young girl, who's unhappily attending the local boarding school, but again she makes decisions that leave the girl feeling betrayed, and it's only when everyone is very elderly that some kind of emotional resolution and closure is reached by all concerned.

Ellen narrates most of the story and it remains unclear if she's meant to be quite as prissy as she often comes across - not least in her relationship with the two young girls where, despite all her protestations of deep feelings towards them, she frequently scolds them like some stern unmarried aunt. "What an old maid I sounded," she says at one point, but she's like that throughout.

And there's something of the cosy Aga Saga about the village life that's conjured up, with a cast of characters that includes a saintly husband, a no-nonsense but kindly lady of the manor, a wise and caring gardener and a cantankerous but loveable working-class best friend.

Some of these people are just too good to be true, especially husband Selwyn, 20 years older than Ellen and initially reluctant to marry because the trauma he had suffered while serving in the preceding world war had left him unable to engage in sexual relations.

But 21-year-old Ellen doesn't mind entering into a "marriage blanc", cherishing instead "a man I could say anything to and be understood, a man who could open the world to me with his heart and mind. How many women had that?"

The author, who studied Arabic at Oxford and worked in Cairo as a translator of Arabic literature, has written one other novel - The Game, which won a Betty Trask Award in 1994.

Twenty-five years later and now living in Somerset with her husband and daughter, she has fashioned a resolutely old-fashioned second novel that, at more than 400 pages, meanders too much for its own good.

Yet while it provides too many minutiae about Ellen's experience of village life, it conveys a vivid sense of place and of period. And it succeeds in being genuinely affecting about the well-meaning but misguided choices that people make and the lost lives that ensue from these choices.

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