About the Book:
When art school graduate, Eleanor Roy, is recruited by the War Artists Advisory Committee, she comes one step closer to realising her dream of becoming one of the few female war artists. But breaking into the art establishment proves difficult until Eleanor meets painter, Jack Valante, only to be separated by his sudden posting overseas.
Although reluctant to leave her family at home, Kathryn can’t refuse her grandmother Eleanor’s request to travel to London to help her return a precious painting to its artist. But when the search uncovers a long-held family secret, Kathryn has to make a choice to return home or risk her family’s future, as Eleanor shows her that safeguarding the future is sometimes worth more than protecting the past.
Eleanor’s Secret is at once a surprising mystery and compelling love story.
There has been a lot of historical fiction set during the WWII era released over the last 12 to 18 months. Those of you who have been tuning in here regularly for reviews will know that this is my ‘thing’. My preferred subject. My literary obsession. Next year in September, it will be 80 years since that terrible war was officially declared in Europe. It was called a world war for a reason and it’s reach was extensive, as is the scope for stories pulled out of that time. There are a lot of stories to still be told, I do believe that, but with so many novels set within this era released so frequently, my expectations of these stories are getting higher with each new novel I pick up. Because essentially, they are all about the same thing, just viewed through a different lense and set on a different stage. When I sit down to read a WWII novel these days, I have two essential requirements:
- That the story is distinctly unique, enlightening me about an aspect of the war that has not been written about before.
- That I am deeply affected by what I read, and to be deeply affected, I need to connect to the characters and be convinced of the authenticity of their suffering and/or journey.
Eleanor’s Secret fulfilled my first requirement but completely missed the mark on my second. I’ve not read much in the past about war artists, more about photography and journalism on the battlefield, so the subject matter was certainly uniquely engaging. I liked the idea of artistic interpretation being recorded, as opposed to a photograph. I would love to see some of these war pieces one day, to examine the emotion and perspective that must surely be unique to each artist.
While I appreciated the author’s intent with regards to highlighting the inequality that was present between male and female artists and their accessibility to the war itself, I didn’t particularly feel Eleanor’s injustice. Within the era, women were not permitted on the battlefield. It seemed incredulous that Eleanor perceived that this was at all possible. Not only was she an unknown artist, she was also very young and naively ignorant of the true horrors of war. Jack was spot on when he read Eleanor’s horrified reaction to his war tales and translated that reaction into a clarification that the battlefield was no place for her to be. It would have destroyed a part of her, just as it had destroyed a part of Jack. To be an artist is to be attuned to emotions and within the theatre of war, with so much suffering on display; my admiration for these war artists knows no bounds. I couldn’t help but put myself into this scenario, and I know, with absoloute certainty, that I could not have put myself into that situation without bearing significant psychological consequences. However, I also know that men and women interpret situations differently, so there would have been significant value in also having women artistically recording the war. Eleanor’s Secret has many thought provoking scenarios and I enjoyed that about this story, the exploration of ideas and the challenge of social conventions. Jack’s respect for Eleanor as an artist was one of the things I enjoyed most about their relationship. Out of the two, he was my favourite, but there were many things left unsaid about him and his war efforts, which was a real shame. As a character, he had more dimension than Eleanor and his sections were by far more engaging.
The present day (2010) sections of this novel were a struggle for me. I honestly feel I would have enjoyed this novel so much more if it had been a straight historical, set in 1942-43 and perhaps even extending beyond this somewhat. This would have allowed for a more detailed exploration of Eleanor’s artistic motivations as well as allowing for more depth and time with Jack. Dual timelines are tricky, striking that balance between the two eras to ensure a seamless transition and fluid engagement. I felt pulled out of the story each time I reached a 2010 section. Some of this was pacing, but much of it was to do with the chracters themselves and the fact that not very much was happening at all. I felt sorry for Kathleen, who spent days rushing from here to there in an attempt to solve a mystery that wouldn’t have even been a mystery if not for the fact that every one seemed intent on lying to her and leading her astray. I find storylines that revolve around people misleading others by withholding the truth disappointing more than intriguing. That drip feeding of information from one character to another just doesn’t work for me. I certainly felt Kathleen’s frustrations, so in that, I definitely connected to her more than I had to Eleanor, in either section. I was a little unconvinced about Eleanor’s and Jack’s separation when considered within the context of their ‘great love’. But times were different then, I suppose, and the chaos of war would have influenced the way things panned out. It was sad really, to think of the loss of the life they could have had together. We are indeed lucky to live in different times.
I feel like I’m really yanking at the seams with this novel, and in some ways, that’s a sign that it was a good one. There was plenty that worked for me, and so much that gave me reason to pause and reflect, but the above mentioned points greatly hampered my engagement with the 2010 story, which impacted on my overall enjoyment of the novel as a complete work. Shelving the 2010 sections would have allowed for greater exploration of Eleanor and Jack during the war, particularly their love story, which was bittersweet but all too brief. The writing within Eleanor’s Secret was often beautiful, vivid in its imagery, quiet and present, almost veering across the line into literary fiction while still remaining dressed as popular fiction. The research was immense and woven into the story seamlessly. I discovered so much about war artists and even everyday life within London during the war. Social history is endlessly fascinating to me, so on this front, Eleanor’s Secret came through for me. This is a good novel, and less nitpicky readers will probably think it’s an excellent one. It’s an ideal selection for bookclubs with its themes of inequality and the domestic drama present throughout. I appreciate Caroline Beecham’s writing style, so my issues with this novel will not prevent me from reading more of her work.
Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of Eleanor’s Secret for review.
About the Author:
Caroline Beecham grew up at the English seaside and relocated to Australia to continue her career as a writer and producer in film and television. She has worked on a documentary about Princess Diana lookalikes, a series about journeys to the ends of the earth, as well as a feature film about finding the end of the rainbow. Caroline decided on a new way of storytelling and studied the craft of novel writing at the Faber Writing Academy at Allen & Unwin in 2012. She has an MA in Film & Television and a MA in Creative Writing and lives with her husband and two sons by Sydney harbour. Her first novel, Maggie’s Kitchen, was published by Allen & Unwin in 2016.
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