*I received an arc via the publisher in return for an honest review*
The New Mrs Clifton by Elizabeth Buchan
‘Wrapped in the roots of the sycamore was a skeleton; the remains of a woman, between twenty-five and thirty. She had carried a child . . .’
At the close of the Second World War, Intelligence Officer Gus Clifton returns to London. On his arm is Krista, the German wife he married secretly in Berlin. For his sisters, this broken woman is nothing more than the enemy. For Nella, Gus’s loyal fiancée, it is a terrible betrayal. These three friends wonder what hold Krista has over decent, honourable Gus. And, they ask themselves, how far will they have to go to permanently get her out of their home, their future, their England?
The novel opens in 1974 with the discover of skeletal remains on Clapham Common. The body is Identified as that of a female that has carried a child previously. Estimated time of her death is 1945-7. The investigations begin to trace her identity and next of kin.
How do you solve a case when the body has been in the ground for over 20 years?
September 1945, Krista arrives in Waterloo with her new husband Gus. She arrives at his house at Clapham Common, where both his sisters currently reside. The oldest Julia and the youngest Tilly. We learn that Julia lost her husband in the war and is in pain as the grieving widow. But how will they react to Krista who is by birth a German citizen? As the story develops in the early chapters, we learn that the war has not been easy for Krista either.
With German women, left to pay for the sins of their country by the red army.
Soviets reached Berlin – “Hell had many rooms”
There is something odd about the marriage between Krista and Gus and it becomes clear to the reader this is an arrangement. But how and why, we are yet to know. For Intelligence Officer Gus Clifton, the war is far from over. With Europe is destruction and the allies scrambling to uncover the German secrets and spoils of war. The race to information of secret weapons and industrial technology is on and at some point both Krista and Gus must return to Berlin.
Life in London Post-ww2 is far from easy, there are bombed out houses and displaced people. The feelings towards the Germans is clear and it is one of hatred. Julia and Tilly each respond to Krista in their own way, but neither is fond of the idea of a German sister-in-law. It becomes an us vs them mentality and Krista is sure to lose. We also of Nella and her brother Teddy, Gus having been engaged to be married to Nella prior to his service in the war. Nella refuses to accept that Gus is a changed man. Teddy on the other hand is furious at the betrayal.
As with all good stories, betrayal and vengeance go hand in hand.
“He wants a normal life. That’s what he always told me. And it won’t be normal with you”
Gus’s role in intelligence is to interrogate the enemy. He returns to Berlin with Krista to attempt to uncover the truth about a German prisoner. The prisoner is living under the assumed identity of Gretl Helger, but is she really Gudrun Kreutz. Gudrun is accused of having worked at Auschwitz concentration camp and responsible for the deaths of others.
The interrogation that takes place is gripping! I couldn’t take my eyes from the page!
The Clifton’s return from Berlin as changed people, they agree to make a go of their marriage, despite their families’ unhappiness with this. Gus sees himself as Krista’s protector, her guardian but in time their relationship develops. It isn’t long until Krista is with child and they will welcome the first new baby into the Clifton household.
That is if they can survive the scheming of others and survive each other………..
The novel is rich in historical accuracy and it creates a fantastic backdrop to the plot. The theme of love/sex during ww2 is a fascinating one. As this was the start of the impending female sexual revolution. So I found the development and characterisation of the female characters very intriguing. Essentially this is a novel of relationships and the choices adults make, how they impact on the others around them.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I loved the way the female characters broke the mould!
Q) Can you give us a summary of your new novel and your background as a writer?
A) In 1945 Gus Clifton, an intelligence officer who has been working in Berlin, comes home to Clapham Common in London with a new bride. This comes as a complete shock to his
sisters, Julia and Tilly, for not only is she German but Gus was supposed to be marrying their friend Nella who has been patiently waiting for his return. The three women are distraught and horrified by Krista who they see as not only an interloper but as the enemy that Britain has been fighting. Three decades later, a skeleton is found in the back garden of the house. It is female and has born a child. Who is she?
Q) I am a huge ww2 geek, I am obsessed with the era in the historical fiction that I read. What inspired you to write about the era?
A) I am obsessed with World War 2 as well and, in particular, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) the undercover organization which sent agents into occupied territories. Two of my novels, Light of the Moon and I Can’t Begin to Tell You are about women SOE agents. During my researches, I met surviving agents and became friends with Noreen Riols who worked at the Baker Street headquarters. With Noreen’s help, I delved into the training they underwent in detail: field craft, Morse code and clandestine messages. The agents endured loneliness, hardship and great danger and the stories of their bravery and resourcefulness are legion. I’m in awe of the courage and resourcefulness of these men and women many of whom did not come home.
Q) The novel focuses on the relationship between British intelligence officer Gus Clifton and his German wife Krista. Can you give us a little bit more about their relationship?
A) Every nation likes to think it behaves well in war and peace. The truth is that war reduces civilized society to its basics. Nice, thoughtful people end up doing dreadful things. Gus is a good person, and excellent at his job but he finds himself in Berlin when the Nazis are on the run and the Russians have unleashed their troops who want revenge for the long years of fighting. It is there he encounters Krista in dreadful circumstances and he finds it impossible to abandon her. Theirs is a relationship which grows out of a terrible past and struggles to survive. Will it?
Q) A little over a year ago I took my kids to Jersey, to see the liberation day parade. I wanted to educate them about ww2 and the Jersey occupation. Whilst there we were told the story of a local woman who fell in love with a German soldier. When the war was over, she had to leave Jersey for fear of being killed. Was there a real-life relationship that inspired the novel?
A) Before I became a writer, I worked at Penguin Books as a blurb writer. Much of the job was taking up by reading and much of the reading was fiction. It struck me early on how frequently novelists used material from their own lives which they then put through the fiction filter. My aunt married a German in 1946 and I imagine that the families on both sides were horrified and, after the years of fighting, felt betrayed. For the novel, I decided to reverse the situation. It was a cruel time and people endured rationing and deprivation and, over and above the everyday struggle, there was a longing to be normal.
I was not born when my aunt married but I often thought about the problems they must have faced and I thought about them as I began to write my chief character, the abused and damaged Krista, as she struggles to make a new life after the horrors of violence and breakdown.
Q) The novel is set post ww2 and I know through reading various non-fiction books emotions ran high for many years. With some British soldiers who fought in the war refusing to ever purchase a Japanese of German product ever again. I know of one Lieutenant who refused to even have a German car on his land. Is this difficult to portray to the readers?
A) It is and it isn’t. British society is by and large tolerant and welcoming but, in some areas, there has been an increase in hostility to strangers. One has only to think of those instances with which many readers will be familiar – after the war many landlords refused to rent rooms to the Irish and today many immigrants feel they are not welcome in the same way – which means readers will understand a fictional portrayal.
Q) What is your research process? Is it difficult to stay on track with a wealth of information available?
A) I’ve found that researching can be addictive. There are so many highways and by-ways to follow via books and documents. Not to mention taking the odd trip or so to somewhere to get that first-hand feel. Learning to restrict oneself is crucial and learning to use what have dug up in your research is almost more crucial. I came to the conclusion that you can never know everything and, thus, it is better to familiarize oneself with your subject as thoroughly as you can and then put it aside. Very often one or two facts will stick in the mind – for example: soap and shampoo were extremely hard to obtain in post-war Britain. Knowing that, you can think yourself into the mind of a character. Without soap, someone might quite easily smell. As a result, someone else might avoid them and that could be crucial to the plot … the possibilities then spin out.