‘Wrapped in the roots of the sycamore was a skeleton; the remains of a woman, between twenty-five and thirty. She had carried a child . . .’
Today I join Elizabeth Buchan on tour with her novel The New Mrs Clifton. Set against the backdrop of London, post WW2, this is a very intriguing book. I read many, many books in the Historical Fiction genre and I can honestly say that this book delivers a very unique take on life at that time in our history.
Described by Red Magazine as ‘a gripping, immensely satisfying read‘, The New Mrs Clifton was published in paperback this past Summer by Penguin and I am delighted to bring you my review here today…
At the close of the Second World War, Intelligence Officer Gus Clifton returns to London. On his arm is Krista, the German wife he married secretly in Berlin. For his sisters, this broken woman is nothing more than the enemy. For Nella, Gus’s loyal fiancée, it is a terrible betrayal.
These three friends wonder what hold Krista has over decent, honourable Gus.
And, they ask themselves, how far will they have to go to permanently get her out of their home, their future, their England?
Where to start……
The New Mrs Clifton opens with quite a shocking scene. It’s 1974 and the body of a woman is discovered buried in a garden by the new owners of the property.
We are immediately taken back to 1945. Gus Clifton arrives into Waterloo station with his new German wife Krista by his side. From the outset their relationship seems fraught with tension as they approach Gus’s home. Krista is in awe of the buildings but is also immediately wary of her safety in this strange place.
‘The house? In the middle of a terrace of handsome semi-detached houses that faced on to the Common, it had an innate elegance…..somehow because it was central in the terrace perhaps, Gus’s house appeared to have survived intact….Was it a place of safety? Please God, it was.’
Gus’s two sisters, Julia and Tilly, have maintained the house in his absence.
Julia, is a widow, after the war claimed her husband. With Krista’s arrival into the household, Julia’s world tilts on it’s axis. Julia is very bitter towards Germany and it’s people. They took her husband, they destroyed her city and they stole her happiness.
‘”You’re German?” Her voice rose in scandalized question. “German?” “Yes.” It was said and everything was set in stone. Julia looked absolutely dumbfounded…”And you brought her here to us?”‘
Tilly is more accepting of Krista. To Tilly, Krista’s arrival is an adventure ‘”How perfect! German…How wicked of you Gus. How brilliantly perverse. That will set the cat among the pigeons.”‘
Two very opposing views on the the new Mrs Clifton….
Meanwhile Gus was betrothed to Nella, the sister of his life long friend Teddy. With this announcement, Gus has left Nella feeling visibly hurt and betrayed. She herself had been part of the war effort but her love for Gus had sustained her through the toughest of times. Nella is distraught at this news of the marriage and Teddy is angry, very angry for his sister’s pain.
Krista is aware of all these feelings surrounding her. She is German, she speaks minimal English. She looks unhealthy and is quite cold towards Gus. For Julia, Tilly and Nella there are serious questions to be answered. Why did Gus marry Krista? What secrets are being hidden at No. 22 on Clapham Common?
Krista attempts to settle into life as the new Mrs Clifton but at every turn she is faced with difficulty. On the streets outside her door, in the local shops, inside the four walls of her new home, Krista faces racist remarks about her German origin. The local people are very wary of her presence and as a reader so was I?
From the outset, it is clear that Krista and Gus have a story to tell, a story with it’s roots among the ruins of a devastated Berlin. Gus, on his return, continues in his work for his country and we are given brief insights into what this involves yet their story remains elusive.
As the book progresses, the relationships between all the characters is intense and oppressive. As they all struggle to survive on rations and post war allowances, the different personalities begin to break through.
Tilly and Julia were fascinating to read about. Tilly a free spirit, a poet with a constant need for love and companionship is such a sad and ultimately very lonely person. Tilly speaks of this heaviness that she carries around with her always, leading her into some very destructive patterns. Julia, on the other hand is shackled by the bitterness inside. A young widow, she soon comes to the realisation of the life she now faces alone in the world without her husband. As life moves on and the recovery starts to take place, both are faced with some life-changing decisions and heartbreaking moments. What position in society do either of them now hold?
It is the complexities of all these relationships that Elizabeth Buchan expertly weaves together in The New Mrs Clifton.
This is historical fiction with a difference. Yes we are exposed to the trauma and destruction faced by many of society in the aftermath of the war. But this book is more than that. It is a study of human behaviour. We are all very much aware of the atrocities that took place in the Nazi camps by a heinous bunch of people but what of the German people who weren’t involved? What about those ordinary folk who did not agree with the Nazi regime but had to suffer horrendous racism from the rest of the world, as all were tarred with the same brush. Krista has a story to tell and Elizabeth Buchan slowly reveals this story to the reader in snippets that reveal a frightening record of a time in history that should never be forgotten.
The difficulties faced by all the characters as each try to come to terms with their new reality is portrayed with clarity. These are real people with real lives, real hopes and dreams just trying to move on in the best way they can.
Of course, let’s not forget the dead body discovered in the opening pages!!!!!
The New Mrs Clifton has a very authentic feel to it. It’s a novel that will pull you in between the covers as the mystery is slowly revealed. It is also a historical reference to the post war period, revealing a different slant on the atrocious events of the time in both Berlin and London.
A chilling yet compelling read, written with an expressive narrative. A fascinating historical tale with a rather engrossing plot at it’s centre.
Purchase Link ~ The New Mrs Clifton
Elizabeth Buchan’s short stories are broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in magazines.
She reviews for the Sunday Times (UK) and has chaired the Betty Trask and Desmond Elliott literary prizes, and also been a judge for the Whitbread (now Costa) awards.
She is a patron of the Guildford Book Festival and a past Chairman of the Romantic Novelists’ Association.
Twitter ~ @elizabethbuchan
Website ~ http://elizabethbuchan.com/