In 1970s London, a couple have just moved into their new home and found a grisly discovery in the back garden. There are the remains of a woman, aged between twenty-five and thirty, wrapped in a garment of blue wool. Estimated to have died between 1945 and 1947, at some point in the woman’s short life, she had given birth. She had also suffered from Vitamin D deficiency and the trauma to the back of the head indicated that she had probably been killed by a blunt object. From here, the story loops back to 1945, leaving this dark ultimate fate hovering over the novel, with the reader uncertain as to where it would land. Gus Clifton is back from the war and with him is his new wife, but it is not his long-term love Nella whom he has wed, but rather the skeletal Krista, a German. For his sisters, the widowed Julia and the wayward Tilly, his behaviour is baffling and an utter betrayal of all they have fought for over the past six years. But why has he done it, when the bride is neither pregnant nor in love with him? Is the new Mrs Clifton here to stay or can she be persuaded to go away?
Elizabeth Buchan is an established author with a long and varied career, but it was only with her previous novel I Can’t Begin To Tell You that I came across her. Like The New Mrs Clifton, that book also focused on how events of wartime can knock someone’s moral compass to the point where they barely recognise themselves. Yet somehow, I Can’t Begin To Tell You had a friendlier feel, featuring Ruby and Kay who felt like they were trying to do the right thing. The New Mrs Clifton is instead peopled by characters who used to be nice, who had once had lives that they liked but who have had all that they once cherished stripped away. Julia had been the attractive wife of the RAF officer, carrying his child. After her husband’s death, the comrades who had once admired her were keen to have her shuffled out of the barracks, a too sad reminder of the consequences of failed missions. Then the daughter slipped out to the world too soon. No longer a wife, robbed of motherhood, Julia is without purpose and furious at this representative of the nation she feels took away all she ever wanted. Tilly appears less openly combative but her very deliberate attempts to court scandal do not make her a reliable ally.
With a cluster of thorny and fuming British characters, Krista is the most sympathetic character. Indeed, it is her perspective which opens the novel, as the train pulls into Waterloo. We see her uncertainty around her new husband, her quiet acknowledgment of how little she knows of him. He is so solicitous, she shies from his touch. At bedtime in the family home, he offers to sleep in the dressing room and she forces herself to decline although the scent of him makes her nauseous. She has nightmares, flashbacks to post-war Berlin and the repeated rapes by Allied soldiers, the rapes that happened too often to be recognised as individual incidents. The nightmare of the fallen Berlin has left her traumatised but as her secrets are gradually revealed over the course of the novel, we also come to recognise her strength.
Buchan seems to have an interest in the lesser celebrated events of World War Two, such as the Danish resistance in I Can’t Begin To Tell You or as in here with the dark events which unfolded after the German surrender. Gus is involved in ‘hush hush’ work, tracking those suspected of war crimes and although marrying a German has not done his career any favours at all, his expertise is still needed and Krista too is required to help. The sequence in which Mr and Mrs Clifton team up for an interrogation is spell-binding, again offering a portrayal of events which mainstream World War Two fiction tends to overlook. Krista’s role as the German collaborating with the Allies is also fascinating, with the Nazi war criminal expressing disgust at her treachery, while on the other side of the table, Gus’ colleagues also look at her in disdain. The world was a frightening place for a German after the war, even if one was innocent of war crimes. Krista realises that although she has left the more obvious dangers of Berlin, life as an enemy alien in Britain holds dangers of its own.
There is something deeply sinister about The New Mrs Clifton, with the jilted Nella hovering in the park to spy on Krista, or Julia having angry outbursts in the kitchen, then Tilly’s sweet confidences to her sister-in-law that she just might be happier back in Germany with her friends. Throughout the novel, I wondered which of the women would be the one to dug up from the flowerbed thirty years later – likely candidates varied. Unfortunately, I did feel that the denouement for this plot thread was rather disappointing – after such a build-up, it just didn’t feel satisfying. That being said, given that the narrative never returns to the 1970s, I did wonder a little where the other characters ever discovered the truth. Still, despite my lukewarm feelings about that aspect of the novel, I was blown away by the novel’s final pages which left me analysing the whole story right back to the beginning. I still have a lot of spoilerific thoughts and would love to hear from someone else who had read the book.
The New Mrs Clifton summons up down-trodden and exhausted post-war Britain in painful detail and with a very sharp sense of place. It reminded me of walking along a Victorian street in London with a friend who pointed out ‘Bomb hit there’, ‘And another one’, ‘A bomb over there too’, whenever he saw a more modern semi-detached house scattered among. London was a battlefield in the war – is it any wonder that people struggled to return to their pre-war selves after the fighting stopped? The conundrum of whether to forget, to pretend that certain things never happened at all or that certain others had occurred in a different way to the truth – it is something that we are still struggling with. The spirit of the Blitz was a myth. The French resistance a fairy story. The Germans knew about the Holocaust while it was happening, as did plenty of other people. Very few people come out of the war smelling of roses and it is a sign of Buchan’s maturity as a writer that she can construct a novel around these uncomfortable and unpalatable truths. Gus and Krista did meet in a library, but the story of how she became the New Mrs Clifton is not one that their wider circle will ever be told.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by Penguin Books on August 11th 2016
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