Days of Grace by Catherine Hall

NY: Viking, 2010
First published in the UK by Portobello Books, 2009

Days of Grace by Catherine Hall is a psychological tale of friendship, love, and the corrosive effects of silence and unspoken feelings on individuals and families.  The setting is London and Kent during the span of British involvement in World War II and contemporary London.  Yes, its one of those novels that bounces back and forth in time, but it is done well. 

TheBookseller.com, the UK’s book industry magazine (similar to Publisher’s Weekly in the US), recently posted a piece by Victoria Gallagher that reported on how book designers there may be missing out on not including blurbs and other copy on book covers.  Gallagher’s short article (click here to read) about how blurbs can help sell books states that research from Book Marketing Limited “found that the blurb makes 62% of consumers buy a particular book.”

This is partially true for me.  Its the first couple of paragraphs or pages of a book that are the deciding factor on whether I’ll take it home or not (unless its on my To Be Read list for some reason).  But when it comes to the initial browsing of books, blurbs and other jacket copy are often the reasons why I pick up a book in order to get to the point where I’ll read the first couple paragraphs.  Such is the case with Days of Grace.

The reason I picked up Days of Grace was the comparison made to Sarah Waters, one of my favorite writers, on the back copy.  Actually, that’s not true.  The real reason I first picked up the book was to re-shelve it because someone abandoned it on a chair at the bookstore where I work.  But as I walked the book back to its proper section to re-shelve it, I read the back jacket copy and was intrigued.  This is the first book that I’ve come across that offers a comparison to Waters.  The next day I read the first few pages and decided to take it home.

Here’s the blurb that snagged me:

“Sarah Waters meets Daphine du Maurier.  Days of Grace does everything a good debut should: moves you, surprises you and restores your faith in the power of a novel.  Hall writes beautifully about the exquisite pains of unrequited love.” Harper’s Bazaar (UK)

Days of Grace is Catherine Hall’s first novel.  Its a tragic love story about Nora Lynch, who is 12 years old at the opening of the book.  She lives in poverty with her mother; her father having died in 1929 the mother takes no chance with Nora’s safety and puts her on a train with other children being evacuated out of London.  She ends up in Kent where she is taken in by the Rivers.  Their daughter, Grace, spots Nora sitting in an animal pen where the children were take after arrival.  Grace begs her mother like a child at the dog pound, “Please, Mummy. Can’t we have her?” (18).  And so the Rivers become Nora’s surrogate family.  Later there’s a scene when Grace sucks a stinger out of Nora’s arm, and when Nora looks at her arm she sees that, “On it was a red mark where Grace’s lips had been, like the marks that the farmers painted on sheep to show who owned them” (118).  The scene is revealing: Grace doesn’t know the extent to which she does own Nora and Nora acts like a sheep when it comes to Grace.  For all of Nora’s fears about God’s punishment, for example, she regularly steals and drinks communion wine–nicknamed Bad Blood–with Grace.

The earlier scene of Nora’s life in London is dreary, gray, and lifeless.  Nora and her Ma have only the barest necessities, but they have much love between them which is expressed in physical closeness.  But for all her mother’s love, she is silent about something every 12 year old girl should know about prior to it happening to her:  Nora discovers she’s bleeding in a stinking WC alone on the train.  She thinks God is punishing her for hating her mother for making her leave.  Mother and daughter exchange only one letter during the years they’re apart and Nora is embarrassed by her mother’s barely literate writing. The implication seems to be that illiteracy contributes to a lack of verbal communication and intimacy.

In Kent luxury and life explode around Nora.  She now lives in a large, beautiful house that even has a room dedicated to eating.  Prior to seeing it, Nora hadn’t known that dining rooms exist.  The description of Nora’s first meal with the Rivers made my mouth water.  Imagine growing up a poor girl eating bland, colorless food and then sitting down to this meal.  Here’s a taste:

“Ma and I ate plain food that was white or grey; bread and dripping, boiled potatoes and stew.  The food that Mrs Rivers set down on the rectory table was bright like stained glass in a church window.  The slices of meat that came way from Reverend Rivers’ carving knife were as pink as a blush. Mrs. Rivers put two pieces on my plate, next to orange carrots, dark green spinach and roast potatoes the colour of gold, then she poured on gravy that settled in pools around it all. . . . The smell of the food rose up to my nose, thick and strong.  I picked up my knife and fork and cut through one of the pieces of meat.  I stabbed at it with my fork, added a potato and dipped it into the gravy. . . .I wanted to keep the taste of that first mouthful forever, holding the meat and potato on my tongue as the hot gravy ran down my throat.  Swallowing seemed like a shame.  But the mouthfuls that followed were just as good.  I put iron-tasting spinach next to buttery carrots and softened the saltiness of the potatoes with gravy.  I cut a slice of beef into little pieces and piled them all onto my fork, then filled my mouth as full as I could with meat, liking the resistance that it gave as I chewed” (41-42).

The house is beautiful, the food is delicious, the surrounding countryside is Nora’s playground, and she and Grace become best friends, as close as beloved sisters.  But as Nora grows up, she starts to notice that all is not well in the Rivers’ home.  Mrs Rivers retreats for hours everyday to play her piano.  Reverend Rivers spends his days at the Rectory and his evenings in his study.  They don’t seem to have much to do with one another or with Grace.  This family may be highly literate, but they too lack intimacy and live in isolation from each other.  We find out why later in the book.

And then Nora starts to realize that she longs for more than just friendship with Grace.

When the girls are out in nature, Nora is in paradise.  As they run into the lake and swim underwater, she says, “I felt utterly at peace.  In this silent world I was calm, free of the shame that weaselled its way into my heart whenever I though of her.  I wished that I could stay in it forever” (139).  But life moves on, or at least Grace does.  Nora wants what she wants and does all she can to maintain her illusion that their paradise lost can be reclaimed.  She seems to shrivel next to Grace, both physically and emotionally.  She sinks further into desperation and isolation which causes her to take desperate action with irreversible consequences.

I can’t discuss much more of the book without revealing the twists and turns of the plot, which is much of the pleasure of reading a book such as this.  And it is in the unwinding of the plot that I can see the comparisons to Sarah Waters who is a master at plot twists–from small, subtle ones that build and eventually crest, pleasantly surprising you, to the colossal shifts that you don’t see coming and that make you talk back to the book, saying intelligent things like, “no way!”

The intense feelings of love that Nora has for Grace made me think of Nan’s feelings for Kitty in Tipping the Velvet (the book by Sarah Waters, the screenplay by Andrew Davies).  The movie Heavenly Creatures also came to mind several times as I was reading due to the intensity of the relationship between the girls and their class differences as well.  I won’t be surprised if Days of Grace finds its way to the cinema.

Nora is a complicated character.  She’s a survivor.  She struggles to break her silence.  Every time she does something that I want to judge and condemn, I remember bits from her story that make me soften towards her.  She was raised in poverty with very little education (until she got to Kent, anyway), sent away by her only parent to live with strangers, never had the security of a family that was open and honest about feelings, and lived in a time when acceptance of lesbian love was nonexistent.  Nora reads Reverend Rivers’ books in the hopes of finding a love that she can relate to, that will validate her feelings towards Grace, but, of course, she finds nothing.  And then there are the laws and accompanying guilt of her religion that further isolate her due to her difference.

When reading historical fiction, I often feel a longing for the world the author has created.  Not so in this case.  Hall has created a world where the characters all seem to live lives of quiet desperation, isolated from one another by feelings and circumstances.  I am glad to be where I am, in the time I am, with beautifully written books like Days of Grace to read and be challenged by.  Its a book that encourages me to open up more to life, to take the risks to be vulnerable with those I love and to make new connections as well.

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