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Juliet West: Before
the Fall and The Faithful: An
accomplished new writer of twentieth-century historical romantic drama.
For young novelists seeking publication in the New
Millennium, twentieth-century war and conflict can be an irresistibly
fascinating choice of background setting for a story.
One such excellent new writer is Juliet West. She chose to
set her debut novel in the East End of London during World War One. Before the Fall (2014) takes the perspective
of the soldiers’ wives that were left behind in England’s capital city. At no
time do we meet the troops away fighting in the trenches; we stay at home and walk
instead with the lost and lonely wives and widows, many of them with young
children or babies, and we learn of the cabin-fever that besieges them in their
cooped-up small lodgings in working-class mean streets.
For her second and latest new novel Juliet has taken late
1930s England for her period setting. In The
Faithful (2017) the action begins in West Sussex (in real life, the
author’s birthplace). As the story alternates between there and London her
characters become mixed up with the Fascist movement led by Sir Oswald Mosley.
In due course there is entanglement with the International Brigade that travels
to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
A crucial test of a modern-day author’s capability for
writing ‘faction’ is how skilfully and seamlessly the author can mix real-life
characters and events with imagined ones.
For my money the top standard has been set by the author Sarah Waters in
her chosen realm of fictional drama set in the late Victorian era or the first
half of the twentieth century. When I measure other authors that have attempted
the same genre as a Night Watch or a Paying Guests it has been my experience
that some of them have come up short – in some cases a long way short.
So it is with a reader’s glee at finding an excellent new
author that I commend Juliet West for her two published novels so far. It
struck me very quickly in Before the Fall
that her setting of the East End areas of Canning Town, Isle of Dogs and
Stepney was remarkably evocative in enabling me to picture what was happening.
Everything sounded trustworthily authentic in conveying working-class home life
and street life in 1916 and 1917. It is no easy task for an author to insert
period references into a narrative with natural and unobtrusive effect, but
Juliet West achieves this effortlessly, without any jarring, when we read for
example that an urchin girl swipes a beetroot from a market stall and tucks it
into her pinafore pocket, or that a child’s Christmas present is a make-pretend
horse improvised from a mop and an old box, on which he happily shouts
‘Giddy-up’ as he tumbles round the house.
I wouldn’t mind betting that many of Juliet West’s readers
will be surprised and fascinated, as I was, by some of her true-fact
revelations about British life in her chosen periods. Did you know, for
example, or did you once know but had somehow forgotten that in World War One
there were German aeroplane raids that dropped bombs on London, forcing the
panic-stricken public to rush for underground shelter inside the tube stations?
Notwithstanding my praise for Juliet West’s excellent
capability to merge real-life events into her novels – an outstanding example
being her description of the violent march of the Fascists (blackshirts) led by
Sir Oswald Mosley into East End London in 1936 – my biggest element of praise
is reserved for the engaging and powerful readability of her stories.
In essence, the story-lines of Before the Fall and The
Faithful could stand alone. The specific period settings allow the author
to peg her characters to certain real-life events, generally well known to her
readers, that explain and justify how her characters behave; but in any era, I’d warrant, her young
characters (Hannah and Daniel; Hazel and Tom) would attract our interest, and
our worry, as they grapple with the practical and emotional dilemmas that
There is similarity, and duality, in the personal relationship
themes that drive the dramatic action in each of the two novels Before the Fall and The Faithful. In the confusion, innocence and inexperience of their
youth, Hannah and Daniel and then Hazel and Tom search for love and support but
they find it to be a painful path. At times they are harshly or shamefully let
down by their elders and supposed betters. Juliet West displays a masterful
understanding of the class distinctions that ruled her two chosen eras of the
1910s and the 1930s. She is a clever yarn-spinner, too. I won’t risk being a
plot-spoiler but I will say that in each of Before
the Fall and The Faithful the
leading female character is pitched into turmoil by a ‘life-changing’ dramatic
circumstance that should not come as a total surprise to a reader that has
spotted the earlier clues or hints. But the author is an artful good tease! - Juliet West likes to keep us guessing about
her characters and we might sometimes stumble down the wrong track. Lucia, for
example: is she the type of girl that we might especially expect to find in a Sarah
Before the Fall
Hannah, a young mother of two whose husband is away fighting
in France, takes up with Daniel, a young widower whose reserved occupation in a
Docklands ship-repair yard exempts him from overseas service. How will Hannah
and Daniel cope with their blossoming love, against the disapproval of their
peers? Part One of the story closes with a poignant, almost lyrical moment of
escapism for the young lovers as they take a winter walk in Greenwich Park. As we open the pages of Part Two do we sense
that fate and prejudice inevitably will slide Hannah and Daniel into struggle
Hannah and Tom chance to meet in July 1935 when the blackshirts
are holding a seaside summer camp for their youth movement. Lust and mistrust …
yearning and learning … Juliet West has followed her first novel with a strong
and spellbinding second one that reinforces her arrival as an accomplished new writer
of twentieth-century historical romantic drama.
Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:
Roger Moore as Ivanhoe
Future Rock: Music and Politics in the 1970s
The New Love Poetry and London's 1967 Unforgettable Summer of Love
The author E.M. Forster (1879 – 1970) in books and films.
The novelist R.F.
Delderfield and his heroes who roam from home.
How The Wild West Was Written
Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins
Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train
H G Wells
In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn
Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986
Shakespeare's 400th Centenary
Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film
The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
A Tribute to Margaret Forster
Remembering Saeed Jaffrey
Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie
Remembering Ruth Rendell
Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)
The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar
Erle Stanley Gardner
Antony Sher: The History Man
Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author
Computer Chess: The Imitation Game
P G Wodehouse
John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green
Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution
Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam
The Story of Edith Nesbit
Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert
Rebels With A Cause
Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective
The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas
The Bergerac Police Adventure Series
It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene
Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers
The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym
D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...
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