There are some authors whose writing I think can touch the very heart of an individual readers ‘reading soul’. I know that might sound a bit bonkers but sometimes you can pick up a book and feel that it has been written for you, regardless of the subject matter. Of course this is lunacy because the author doesn’t know you and many people may too feel the same way about said book, regardless in your head that book was written for you… The end. It’s so rare even your favourite authors don’t always do it, but some do. This has happened to me with authors such as Jane Harris and Edward Hogan (in particular both their second novels ‘Gillespie and I’ and ‘The Hunger Trace’ I swear were written for me and me alone and I won’t hear otherwise). Now Catherine Hall joins this select few authors who I would give both my arms to be able to write like, I am aware of the irony in this, after her debut novel ‘Days of Grace’ has bowled me over just as much as ‘The Proof of Love’ did yet for very different reasons.
‘Days of Grace’ is one of those tricky, thrilling and mysterious novels where you are given two strands of the narrator’s life at once. We meet Nora both in the present as she silently come to terms with the fact that she is terminally ill, we also meet her aged twelve as the Second World war is on the cusp of breaking out and she is evacuated to the countryside.
The strands of her life at these points we meet her move forward, in the present as she watches and then comes to the aid of a pregnant neighbour and in the past as she moves into the Rectory of a Kent village and befriends the daughter of the family Grace, a friendship so strong it binds them together as friends for life, and complicates life for Nora, only something happens so tragic that it casts a shadow on Nora’s life forever leading to the lonely life of a secretive spinster in the present.
Of course you will all now be desperate to know what the secret is won’t you? Well, you would have to read the book to find out and whilst that may seem teasing of me I really do hope you rush out and get a copy because it is just so wonderful. And now I shall explain why…
I found Nora fascinating from the off. Having read some other reviews of the book since it seems some people have found her aloof and a little cold, I can understand what they mean but I was all the more intrigued about her because of it, how does a relatively care-free young girl (well, as care-free as one could have been during WWII) become a woman so cut off from the world? As I read on, especially as everything is revealed, I could completely understand it. Yet she is also at odds with herself, she helps a pregnant young girl, only years ago she was a vital part of a vibrant independent bookshop (this is a bookish book, I loved her all the more for loving Rebecca as a young girl), I was rather fascinated by her no matter how distant she could be. There is of course the question of how reliable she may or may not be, obsession can lead to romanticising and changing events, but again I loved this too. I do like an unreliable narrator.
“Be careful what you say. Like everyone else, you will hear things that the enemy mustn’t know. Keep that knowledge to yourself – and don’t give away any clues. Keep smiling.”
What I also really admired and loved about the book is that even though we have one narrator we have two stories. These are told in alternating chapters throughout the book. This device is one that is used often and normally I have to admit one story will overtake my interest as I read on. Not in the case of ‘Days of Grace’. I was desperate to know what was going to happen with Nora and Grace as the war went on both in idyllic Kent and the roughness and danger of London but I also wanted to know, just as much, what was going to happen with Nora in the present, her health and the relationship with Rose and her baby. Both stories had me intrigued and I think that was because Catherine Hall very cleverly has the stories mystery foreboding the past tense narrative and shadowing the present without us knowing what it is until the last minute. I thought this brilliantly paced and plotted out. I had no idea what was coming yet in hindsight I can see where the clues and hints were dropped.
I was completely spellbound by ‘Days of Grace’. It made me cry on more than one occasion, the first being because of the cancer storyline and everything going on with Gran (yet this was also oddly cathartic) at the moment but at the end just because the culmination of the book and the emotions running through it suddenly hit you.
For a book of 292 pages there is a huge amount going on and so, like with a lot of my favourite authors, there is not a spare word unnecessarily nestled in the prose. It is also one of those wonderful novels that manages to be ‘literary’ yet also have that utterly compelling pace and mystery at its heart that you become quite addicted. I didn’t actually want to be parted from it (so I nearly cancelled seeing people), and yet I didn’t want it to end (so I kept my appointments after all). Basically, if you haven’t taken the hint yet, I am urging you to give this book a whirl. It’s marvellous.
Has anyone else read ‘Days of Grace’, if so what did you think? Did any of you run off and read ‘The Proof of Love’ after I raved about it last year? Do any of you have moments, like I mentioned early on, where you start reading a book and think ‘this was written for me’ and if so who is the author and what was the book?
Oh and a small note: you can see me in conversation with Catherine Hall and Patrick Gale next Monday at Manchester Literature Festival, where I will be demanding to know when the next book is coming out and more.