“Are you cold, Gran?”
“No, my lovely, it’s just the memories.” I send up a silent prayer that she will never know the dreary fear of war, when all normal life is suspended, when the impossible becomes ordinary, when every decision seems to be a matter of life or death, when good-byes are often for good.
It tends to take the shine off you.
(from The Last Telegram)
The Last Telegram by Liz Trenow will likely win a spot on my “Best of 2013” list. When I finished this book yesterday, I wiped tears from my eyes, sighed, and thought about reading it again. It’s my favorite kind of historical fiction, with the history front and center, characters I care about and don’t want to leave behind, and writing that flows so beautifully that when you sit down to read a few pages, you’ve read a quarter of the book without realizing.
The novel is written in the first person and narrated by 80-year-old Lily Verner, who is mourning the death of her husband of more than five decades. While helping her sort out the house she has lived in since childhood, her 17-year-old granddaughter, Emily, finds an old, locked briefcase in the back of the wardrobe, and memories she hasn’t confronted in decades overwhelm her. Trenow brings readers back to the British countryside in the months before World War II. Lily is 18 years old and preparing to study in Switzerland when the threat of war forces her father to cancel the trip, giving her a choice between taking cooking classes or working in the family’s silk mill. She chooses the latter option, hoping to gain enough experience to work in an office in London, but her father says she needs to understand the business and starts her as a weaver.
While Lily learns the ropes, the world is rapidly changing around her. A flirtation with Robbie Cameron, who owns a company that makes parachutes, and the likelihood that the mill will be forced to close when war breaks out and demand for luxury silk diminishes bring about a new business opportunity for Verner and Sons. It’s not long before the mill becomes part of the war effort, weaving silk for parachutes — and despite being a woman, Lily finds herself taking on more responsibilities at the mill, especially when it looks as though her brother, John, might go off to war.
Lily soon finds herself torn between her family’s expectations for Robbie and her feelings for Stefan, one of the Jewish boys from Germany her family sponsored through the Kindertransport and employs as a weaver in the mill. But the war soon comes between her and Stefan, as people grow worried about “enemy aliens” and espionage, especially as Germany gears up to invade England. As the stresses of producing enough top-quality parachute silk and the seemingly never-ending tragedies of war weigh heavily upon her, Lily, with the help of her friend and factory manager, Gwen, manages to hold herself together — but a mistake comes back to haunt her and tears her world apart.
I honestly can’t think of one thing I didn’t like about The Last Telegram. The romance between Lily and Stefan might seem like something that’s been done before in other WWII novels, but Trenow makes it different by incorporating the history of how the British government placed all men and boys age 16 and older with passports from enemy countries in internment camps. I also loved the way she handled the story with the older Lily and her granddaughter, with a seamless transition from the present to the past and back to the present just once toward the end, so even though the present storyline is just a small part of the book, it doesn’t feel forced or unnecessary. Seeing the feisty Lily in her granddaughter brought the novel full circle. I also thought the descriptions of silk weaving and the little tidbits about the history of silk at the beginning of every chapter were fascinating; I’d never read a WWII novel about silk or parachute production, and that’s a plus given how many wartime books I read. The fact that Trenow’s family has been silk weavers for hundreds of years and actually created parachute silk during the war make the story feel more authentic.
The Last Telegram is a story about love and loss, guilt and forgiveness, and although it made me cry, Trenow does a good job balancing the sadness with hope. It’s a fast-paced novel that isn’t too heavy on the tragedy, but the love you feel for the characters and how Trenow transports you back in time, in their shoes, make for an emotional and completely captivating read.
Disclosure: I received The Last Telegram from Sourcebooks for review.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.