The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller is set in the 1920s in the small Wiltshire of Easton Deadall. The village has been left devastated by the loss of nearly all its men in The Great War. This is not the first tragedy to leave a haunting overshadow; in 1912 the village, and the Easton family, who lord over them all in the stately Easton Hall, are left confused and distressed by the mysterious disappearance of five-year-old Kitty Easton, the daughter of the house. Despite numberous extensive searched no-one has seen or heard from Kitty in nearly 13 years, with her father long dead (killed in the war) and her mother’s health decreasing, the familiy’s search to discover what actually happened to Kitty becomes more frantic. Enter Laurence Bartram.
Bartram is the hero of Speller’s previous novel The Return of Captain John Emmett, a fantastic read that I devoured long before I joined the blogging world. Although a handful of characters from this novel appear in The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, they can easily be read as stand alone novels, and I would highly recommend them both. So yes, Bartram, a church expert, arrives at Easton Deadall in a bid to help his friend, William Bolitho, to renovate the small family church. Bolitho is attempting to breathe life back into Easton Hall by creating a maze memorial to the village’s war heroes, and this maze theme runs throughout the novel, taking on various, and unexpected forms. Laurence quickly becomes intrigued by the disappearance of Kitty and, although perhaps reluctantly at times, attempts to discover what actually happened on that fateful night when she disappeared many moons ago.
I absolutely LOVED this novel. It is filled with so many twists and turns I was kept guessing as to Kitty’s fate right until the closing pages, something that is hard to find in a modern novel. On several occasions I was convinced I had figured out what had happened, who was involved and why they did it, only to realise pages later that I was wrong and needed to guess again. This element of suspense and tension was upheld throughout the novel, with mini mysteries supporting that of the fate of Kitty Easton. This was particularly important to me as a reader, as I felt I wasn’t being set up for a huge anti-climax; the plot was not simply working towards one resolution and focusing solely on that, it was exploring the lives of other characters, and the trials and tribulations of surviving the war and growing up in the shadow of such utter devastation.
There is something about this time in history that appeals to me, I love both contemporary literature of the period, and modern day literature that aims to recreate this fascinating period. The links to historical context rang true throughout, and I found myself turning down pages like crazy as I came across descriptions/passages that I just had to remember, but I am just going to discuss two of them here. The men of Easton Deadall followed in the footsteps of Kitty’s charming and forceful father Digby and joined him on the battlefields in France. Digby was from a generation of priviliged upper class men who truly believed war was a game just ready to won, and were proud to lead the men on their estates into the glorious battlefields of France and on to everlasting victory:
‘To death, more like, Laurence thought. He had come across men like Digby at Oxford: on the river, at college balls, follwoing a beagle pack. Men so handsome and so physically able it was hardly surprising they glowed with confidence.’
This image of Digby as the stereotypical upper class soldier hero resonates with the reality of the period. These men genuinely believed they were invincible and that they would come back from war in a few months, bathed in a glow of patriotic pride. A doomed dream.
It was not just the men who made huge sacrifices in the First World War. Women of the period lost their entire generation of men: brothers, fathers, sons, childhood sweethearts, husbands and friends. For some women this was not the only sacrifice they made. The life of an upper class woman was evolving, they were no longer expected to stay at home and play the dutiful wife, but were beginning to make huge leaps and bounds in terms of equality. Two of the female characters originally met at university, and the sacrifices and actions of one is summed up beautifully:
‘Eleanor is passionate, about injustice, about people she loves, but she is also…dutiful. She was a nurse in appalling conditions in France. She gave up her academic life, swapping quiet libraries, summer punts on the river and tea parties for bloof, pus and vomit, caring for boys turned into leaking carcasses for a war she didn’t even damn well believe in. That she didn’t even have to be a part of.’
The hardest thing about finishing this novel, and actually sitting and writing the review, is that now I cannot decide if I want to stay in the First World War period or venture elsewhere for my next read…