Today I’m delighted to return to my love of WWII fiction with a glowing review for The Light Over London by Julia Kelly. I don’t normally go for books with a strong romance theme, but this baby had enough other, amazing stuff going on that I was happy to set general dislike of mush aside and dive right in. Pull up your stockings ladies, this one will leave you empowered, angry, and ready to take on the world.
Title: The Light Over London
Author: Julia Kelly
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication Date: January 9, 2019
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, WWII Fiction
Themes: Family, Friendship, Survival, WWII, Romance
My Rating: 4.5/ 5
Reminiscent of Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls and Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, this sweeping, entrancing story is a must-read for fans of remarkable women rising to challenges they could never have predicted.
It’s always been easier for Cara Hargraves to bury herself in the past than confront the present, which is why working with a gruff but brilliant antiques dealer is perfect. While clearing out an estate, she pries open an old tin that holds the relics of a lost relationship: among the treasures, a World War II-era diary and a photograph of a young woman in uniform. Eager to find the author of the hauntingly beautiful, unfinished diary, Cara digs into this soldier’s life, but soon realizes she may not have been ready for the stark reality of wartime London she finds within the pages.
In 1941, nineteen-year-old Louise Keene’s life had been decided for her—she’ll wait at home in her Cornish village until her wealthy suitor returns from war to ask for her hand. But when Louise unexpectedly meets Flight Lieutenant Paul Bolton, a dashing RAF pilot stationed at a local base, everything changes. And changes again when Paul’s unit is deployed without warning.
Desperate for a larger life, Louise joins the women’s branch of the British Army in the anti-aircraft gun unit as a Gunner Girl. As bombs fall on London, she and the other Gunner Girls relish in their duties to be exact in their calculations, and quick in their identification of enemy planes during air raids. The only thing that gets Louise through those dark, bullet-filled nights is knowing she and Paul will be together when the war is over. But when a bundle of her letters to him are returned unanswered, she learns that wartime romance can have a much darker side.
Illuminating the story of these two women separated by generations and experience, Julia Kelly transports us to World War II London in this heartbreakingly beautiful novel through forgotten antique treasures, remembered triumphs, and fierce family ties.
While I enjoyed Louise’s story, with her war-time dance hall romance not so dissimilar from how my grandparents met, it took me a touch longer than normal to connect with her character. At first I found her mousy and almost dull (as I’m sure was intended!), and it took Louise and Kate running away to enlist before I really started to care about her character. And I really started to root for her when she took her position in the Ack-ack command and then refused to be controlled by her paramour because she finally her own personal value and the value of the work that she was doing.
Cara on the other hand, I connected with almost instantly. Perhaps it was the conviction with which she removed herself from a toxic relationship (seriously, we need more pop-culture characters that reject rather than glorify such dangerous pairings!) or the fact that she worked for an antiques dealer and discussed in-depth the same bits of cultural ephemera with which I have always been obsessed, we simply clicked.
I enjoyed too how the men in this book were polar opposites from one another. The shy, almost absent minded professor set against the cocky, play-boy pilot. And Yet, it was entirely believable how each woman for her lover. They were both charismatic and endearing, yet simultaneously flawed and complex in ways that create depth and relatability.
I loved the split narrative between present day and WWII. the stories of these two women had enough contrast to create interest, but were complementary enough to create an entirely harmonious narrative. Both women were deceptively strong yet awash with self-doubt, and most definitely on the road to discovering their strength and purpose as individuals rather than in relation to their romantic partners.
The diary served as the perfect bridge between their stories. At times it was impossible to tell if the diary passages were being written by Louise or read by Cara which worked to help bend the timelines and aid in the willing suspension of disbelief. And the way in which the diary was presented really worked to highlight the universality of Louise and Cara’s experiences, with each representing the beginnings and endings of the same type of relationship – always in juxtaposition – which created a feeling of cycles and balance.
But what I loved the most about the diary is how it addresses head on is the flaws of biography and life writing. Especially when Cara finally locates the family of our diary owner, and Louise’s perception of herself and how others viewed her is thrown into question. It forces us, as readers, to question the authority of the narrator(s) and immediately triggers a demand for reflection and the reconsideration of key moments through a different lens. These moments of revelation were perfectly timed for maximum effect, sneak up when you are least expecting them, and change everything.
Would I recommend this book? Sure thing! It might be on the light side, even firmly in the realm of women’s fiction, but it’s carefully crafted and demands reflexive introspection. Kelly stitches a believable balance of between historical fact, imaginative fiction, and heartwarming romance. For lovers of WWII fiction and women’s fiction alike, The Light Over London is sure to hit the spot.
Many thanks to NetGalley for providing a Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review.