Review: The New Mrs Clifton, Elizabeth Buchan

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.

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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.

The New Mrs Clifton by Elizabeth Buchan
Published by Penguin Books on August 11th 2016
Pages: 416
ISBN: 9780718184063

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8 thoughts on “Review: The New Mrs Clifton, Elizabeth Buchan

  1. Wow!

    Another excellent review from you, and one that makes me want to rush out and get a copy even though it’s only 7.15am!

    I’ve always felt that the ‘history’ of the Second World War that were are presented with through popular culture is a rather distorted view of what it was actually like, whether it be in the theatres of war or the home front.

    You mention the Danish resistance, I was totally unaware of what happened in Denmark during the war until the 1980s when my ex-brother-in-law went to live there. Similarly, the Blitz, French resistance and the Holocaust are all misrepresented and misunderstood. But then the history of any war is always written by the victors, thankfully seventy odd years on and there some who are willing to reveal the whole truth rather than the ‘highlights’.

    I will certainly get a copy, and look forward to discussing it – despite your comments about the ending.

    1. That’s funny – I remember you commenting about the Danish resistance when I reviewed “I Can’t Begin To Tell You”. It does seem like a rather undersung chapter of the war. The French Resistance is distinctly over-represented.

      I definitely enjoyed the book – I’m still puzzling over the final page, although admittedly the same was true of her last book, Elizabeth Buchan really knows how to write an ending. I think my main issue with a lot of thrillers is that when the mystery is finally solved, I often find it a little underwhelming. But this book had more going on so I still enjoyed it. Very much looking forward to hearing what you think 🙂

      1. I would love to know your thoughts on the last page. I have just read it and Im not sure what to make of it! What really happened when they met, did it happen or has she let him believe a lie?

        1. I think It did happen – had this discussion with my godmother and a couple of other people who have read this book, excited a great deal of thoughts! It does seem to have happened and she does seem to have ‘chosen’ him as offering an escape route. I actually got to interview the author (Interview tab is on Features menu above) and she seemed to confirm. I really wasn’t sure what to make of it either but it was a very compelling read.

        2. Hi, a little late to this comment but I just finished this book- my mom has been waiting for me to finish so she could ask me the same question! My mom and I agree on the fact that it happened but possibly not in as harsh a way as he was led to believe? Maybe that’s my innocent brain wanting to believe the best of Gus and I can’t help but feel for Krista but she could possibly have exaggerated the events as an escape route (???)

          1. Hi, when I interviewed the author, she confirmed that ‘It’ did happen. I don’t think she exaggerated anything. The rapes of women in Germany after the end of World War Two are a well-known historical event. Both Gus and Krista saw the worst of humanity in that time and it seems to have been that which drew them together. It’s not an easy thing to imagine and I can understand why you might want to believe something else!

  2. I have just finished The New Mrs Clifton – and also found it intriguing, a book to be remembered. There must have been countless Kristas after the war, each in their own way trying to live ‘normal’ lives, despite their unimaginably horrific memories. How they coped with the prejudices and coldness they must have all encountered, how they endured their nightmares, how they bravely brought up their children to live in such a different world…… My own grandfather fought through two world wars, yet barely ever mentioned either. This book reminds me of the tremendous privilege it is to live in relative peace, not knowing hunger or enduring those sort of unthinkable terrors.

    1. I would completely agree – it’s funny, I read this book a year ago and it still pops into my mind every so often. Haunting story – particularly since as you say, there were so many true survivors trying to deal with the trauma in the decades following. We are indeed very fortunate.
      Thank you for commenting – lovely to hear from another fan of the book.

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