By July 1914, the ties between Kezia Marchant and Thea Brissenden, friends since girlhood, have become strained – by Thea’s passionate embrace of women’s suffrage and by the imminent marriage of Kezia to Thea’s brother, Tom, who runs the family farm.
When Kezia and Tom wed just a month before war is declared between Britain and Germany, Thea’s gift to Kezia is a book on household management – a veiled criticism of the bride’s ordinary life to come. Yet when Tom enlists to fight and Thea is drawn reluctantly onto the battlefield herself, the farm becomes Kezia’s responsibility. Each must find a way to endure the ensuing cataclysm and turmoil.
As Tom marches to the front lines and Kezia battles to keep her ordered life from unravelling, they hide their despair in letters filled with stories woven to bring comfort. But will well-intended lies and self-deception be of use when they come face-to-face with the enemy?
The Great War's impact on the home front and battlefield is portrayed in Winspear's (the Maisie Dobbs series) winning stand-alone tale about two girlfriends and how their disparate lives entwine when one of them marries the other's brother. Kezia and Thea couldn't be more different: Kezia is a vicar's daughter and Thea (originally called "Dorrit" from Dorothea by her Dickens-loving family) grew up on the family farm as a tomboy, competing with her younger brother, Tom. Both girls were scholarship students, but it's their differences that bind them. Tensions rise when Kezia becomes engaged to Tom. Thea doubts her city-born friend can manage farm life and, as a dig, gives her The Woman's Book, a publication advising women on a variety of subjects. Excerpts from it, as well as from military manuals of the time, set up chapters told from varying points of view, including that of Edmund Hawkes, a member of the gentry and Tom's neighbor, who becomes Tom's commanding officer. Tom enlists and becomes his sergeant's whipping boy; Kezia thrives as mistress of the farm; and Thea transforms from being a suffragist and pacifist to running an ambulance on the front lines. To keep up Tom's spirits, Kezia sends letters detailing the imaginary scrumptious meals she's prepared for him, which he shares with his comrades. While questioning war's value and showing its terrible effects off the battlefield, Winspear fashions a stunning trajectory for her main characters.