Last Letter Home

Rachel Hore

On holiday in Italy, Briony Wood becomes fascinated by the wartime story of a ruined villa hidden amongst the hills of Naples, discovering that it harbours the secret of a love long lost. Handed a bundle of tattered letters found buried at the villa, Briony becomes enraptured by the blossoming love story between Sarah Bailey, an English woman, and Paul Hartmann, a young German. The letters lead her back almost seventy years to pre-war Norfolk. But as Briony delves into Sarah and Paul's story, she encounters resentments and secrets still tightly guarded. All too quickly it is clear that what happened long ago under the shadow of Vesuvius, she suspects, still has the power to cause terrible pain

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Nerves shredded by internet trolls, Briony takes refuge with friends in Italy, where she discovers long-buried secrets that will re-connect her with her grandfather, stationed there during WW2. Beautifully told.

Richard writes:

What is it that is so appealing about dual timeline stories? Is it that, as the French say, plus ca change, plus ca la meme chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same? We look into the past and see a mirror to ourselves.

Rachel Hore’s intricately constructed story runs along parallel tracks: present-day Italy where a group of friends are on holiday in the hills around Naples, and the same location more than 70 years ago, when the visiting Brits were soldiers, not tourists, men sent to fight and die in the brutal Italian campaign.

Last Letter Home opens in a television studio. Young historian Briony Wood is making her first TV appearance, on a topical and controversial late-night chat show whose host, narcissistic Jolyon Gunn, is not known for taking prisoners. Briony is a last-minute booking, replacing a guest who’s been taken ill (probably with fear, Briony bitterly reflects later). She thinks she’s on to talk about her new book on women at war, but she’s been duped. She’s merely there for Gunn’s amusement: he ridicules her argument that women can fight as effectively as men on the front line and goads and provokes her so much that she loses her temper, telling him, in effect, he’d be a coward on the battlefield. Gunn sneers her off the show and the audience jeer her off it. Her appearance has been a disaster.

As if this isn’t bad enough, within moments of leaving the studio the trolling begins. Gunn’s fans – a vocal bunch of misogynists – begin posting cruel and insulting messages about her. There are crude threats as well. Briony, who has never experienced anything like this before, is traumatised. She begins to suffer anxiety attacks and depression, and ends up in therapy. A healing journey somewhere faraway beckons.

Judy writes:

A few months after her bruising TV experience, Briony joins friends for a two-week holiday in southern Italy. It is July-hot in the countryside outside Naples, and one day, during a solitary stroll into the hills above their villa, Briony makes a discovery. Hidden in a fold of ground at the end of a dusty track, is a ruined house. The sagging wrought-iron gates to the drive are padlocked with a rusty chain. Briony – by nature curious about the past, historian that she is - is intrigued.

She begins to make inquiries and is soon given an amateur cine film, shot during the war and showing a platoon of British soldiers sent to the area during the Italian campaign. They are doing chores, grinning for the camera an making v-for-victory signs. Briony realises with a jolt that they are working at the house she discovered. But that is nothing to the shock she gets when she sees a close-up of one tanned, smiling soldier. She recognises him. It is her grandfather.

Then Briony is handed a bundle of fading letters found in the house after the war, and we’re off. She embarks on a journey that will take her – and us – more than 70 years into the past. We find Sarah Baily in the Norfolk village of Westbury. It is 1939, the first year of the war, and she befriends a local gardener, Paul Hartmann. Paul is German and his position extremely delicate.

As Sarah slowly unpicks Sarah and Paul’s extraordinary story, she uncovers long-held secrets and resentments. And she realises that what took place in that now-ruined villa in the shadow of Vesuvius is still potent; still capable of causing deep emotion. A cracking read.

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