books monthly november 2017

This month Jerry Dowlen looks at a new writer of historical romance - Juliet West

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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 confront them.

 

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 Waters book?!

 

Before the Fall (Mantle, 2014)

 

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 and sadness?

 

The Faithful (Mantle, 2017)

 

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.

 

Jerry Dowlen

October 2017

 

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

   Stan Barstow

   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

John Updike

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

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield

Bailouts

Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

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...


 

The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its sixteenth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.