In his previous life they might never have been his friends. But here — well, they were who he had got to know. And he needed friends, he realised. It was difficult to live together and be civil in these conditions. Here he was, hungry and cold and afraid, and still he was trying to play draughts. How bloody stupid.
But perhaps this was what civilisation was. To move pieces round on a board instead of shooting each other.
(from Past Encounters, pages 112-113)
Quick summary: Set in England in 1955, Past Encounters is a novel about a marriage plagued by secrets. Rhoda Middleton and her husband, Peter, have grown apart emotionally and physically, and when she finds a letter from another woman, she assumes he’s having an affair. But the truth might even be more disturbing: Helen is the wife of Peter’s best friend, Archie Foster, and while they know about her, Rhoda has never heard Peter mention them once in their 10 years of marriage. Trying to find out why Peter kept this part of himself a secret from her forces Rhoda to face the secret she has been keeping since 1945, when the film Brief Encounter was being filmed at the Carnforth train station where she worked and volunteered during World War II. Davina Blake tells the story from Rhoda and Peter’s points of view during the war and in 1955, detailing Peter’s horrific ordeal as a prisoner of war and on The Great March through snow-covered Germany and Rhoda’s life on the home front.
Why I wanted to read it: I’d never read a novel about POWs or the Great March, and I must admit I was drawn to the haunting cover.
What I liked: Blake obviously did her research about conditions in the POW camps run by the Germans and the forced marches of prisoners at the end of the war. I thought the parts of the book told from Peter’s point of view were very well done, and the details Blake provided really made the harsh landscape, the harsh treatment from the guards, and the tensions among the prisoners come to life. Dividing the narrative between the two time periods also made it possible for me to really get to know the characters, what they endured during the war, and how the secrets they kept from one another took a toll on their marriage. It was interesting to see how vastly different their wartime experiences were, with Peter experiencing the very worst of humanity but hanging onto his relationship with Rhoda, and Rhoda living a much easier life but finding it hard to manage the tensions within her family, the obvious dislike Peter’s parents had for her, and her confusion over her relationship with Peter, as they hadn’t been seeing each other very long when he went off to war. Also, the inclusion of Helen and her interactions with both Rhoda and Peter added another layer to the story.
What I disliked: Parts of the novel were long and probably could have been trimmed without affecting the plot, but I really liked Blake’s writing, so the length didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel overall.
Final thoughts: Past Encounters is a beautifully written novel about how the past makes you who you are, how it can haunt you, and how finding peace requires that old ghosts be confronted. Blake delves deep into her characters so readers can understand the depths of their pain, and her portrayal of Rhoda and Peter’s troubled marriage felt so realistic, given the different paths they took during the war. It’s a novel not just about secrets but also the effects of war, the many different experiences of war, and how the ways we deal with grief and guilt define us and our relationships.
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Disclosure: I received Past Encounters from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review.
© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.