Jacqueline Winspear, author of the best-selling Maisie Dobbs series, steps into standalone territory with her latest book, set just before and during World War One.
Kezia and Dorrit (who now prefers to be known as Thea) have been best friends since they were schoolgirls, but their relationship isn’t as it once was. Kezia is to give up her teaching career to marry Thea’s brother and become a farmer’s wife. Thea, being a passionate supporter of women’s suffrage, is more than a little disappointed in her friend’s decision. And her wedding gift, a book on household management, reflects her very sentiment.
But Kezia actually puts it to good use, throwing herself wholeheartedly into her new role as wife and household management. She experiments with herbs and spices, rosemary being a favourite, surprising her husband Tom and the farm hands who are used to far simpler fare. Like pies. And who probably hadn’t seen a garnish (or even heard of the term) before.
But the war is soon upon them and Tom volunteers, along with most of the village men. Kezia’s letters – and her descriptions of the meals that she prepares for him in her imagination – serenade Tom and his fellow soldiers through the long and weary nights. Tom is having an especially hard time at the front, unfortunately scapegoated by a hardened career soldier who doesn’t like all these new recruits entering the war all fresh and unsavvy.
Thea too has volunteered as an ambulance driver, and even Kezia’s father, the Reverend Marchant, is ministering to the troops.
Such loyalty, such bravery as they soldier on in their own ways. Kezia pulling her own weight back home in England, whether it be by managing the farm and household, or keeping spirits up by sending her fruitcakes and letters to the warzone.
Kezia’s letters and meals are such a delight. Her adventures in householding may seem trivial to some but perhaps because I spend quite a bit of my time figuring out meals and reading about food and yes, daydreaming about meals, I am always thrilled to find descriptions of food in fiction.
The beginning cook starts out overcooking her meat, making too-doughy bread, ties up cauliflower with string for boiling. But goes on to impress everyone with her piquant meat pies, her spicy sweet walnut cakes. Her meals all made with love and devotion:
“It was as if Kezia had poured her heart into the cake, so that when Thea took a bite, which she did, later, with a cup of tea, she felt the old warmth of friendship return. She could taste companionship itself, and she longed for her beloved Kezzie to be there, in the room with her, crumbling the cake and counting out walnuts.”
One of the things that I really liked was how Winspear wrote in the various roles played in the war. Not just the soldiers, like Tom, in the trenches, but women like Thea driving the ambulances and being responsible for their maintenance and upkeep, and the Reverand Marchant, who crawls out onto no-man’s-land to offer last rites and lands a hand in the hospital tents. And those who remained in England, having to sacrifice their horses and their land to help with the war effort.
The story moves not only because of the pain and sadness of war, but also the way passage of time can alter friendships and change people. It may be a bit of a slow-moving narrative but it is heartfelt and poignant, especially on this 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.
Jacqueline Winspear is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels featuring Maisie Dobbs, a former World War I nurse turned investigator. Originally from the United Kingdom, Winspear now lives in California. Find out more about Jacqueline at her website, www.jacquelinewinspear.com, and find her on Facebook.
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