Book review: The Faithful by Juliet West

The Faithful by Juliet West
The Faithful by Juliet West
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When Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts arrive in a peaceful Sussex coastal village for a summer camp in 1935, a restless teenage girl is seduced by their dark, alien charms.

But her relationship with two of the young fascist followers leads her into a spiral of love, lies, betrayal… and a poisonous web of secrets from the past.

Juliet West, whose haunting and much-acclaimed debut, Before the Fall, was set in a London torn apart by the Great War, is back to enthral us with a moving meditation on the fall-out from personal, social and political conflict.

In her second stunning novel, West uses her lyrical prose, acute powers of observation and impressive sense of time and place to explore issues that are as relevant now as they were 80 years ago.

Although The Faithful is a work of fiction, some of the events – including the visit of hundreds, possibly thousands, of fascist blackshirts to Aldwick Bay – are based on fact, adding vivid colour and dramatic intensity to the unfolding story.

Sixteen-year-old Hazel Alexander faces a long, dull summer with just her self-centred Bohemian mother Francine for company at their fashionable home on Aldwick seafront. But then Francine decamps to London with her lover Charles Lassiter, leaving Hazel in the care of their housekeeper and with the delicious prospect of some unexpected freedom.

With RAF fighter planes filling the skies on daily training runs, everyone fears that war is on the horizon but when leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley, and his blackshirts arrive to the sound of drums, bugles and ‘boots hitting the ground,’ Hazel’s summer suddenly becomes more interesting.

Her disgusted mother has labelled them ‘political cranks’ but the impressionable Hazel soon finds herself befriended by two very different blackshirts. Lucia Knight is a confident, upper-class young woman, passionate about her mission and eager to recruit new members.

Tom Smart, meanwhile, hails from a working-class background in London and works as a trainee reporter on the News Chronicle in Fleet Street. He was under pressure to attend the summer camp by his doting mother Bea who has bought into the BUF cause, but Tom is increasingly scornful of Mosley’s rhetoric, doubting that the wealthy, strutting leader knows what it is like for ordinary people, ‘scrabbling around to keep a decent pair of boots on their feet.’

As the summer progresses, something ‘beautiful and magical’ happens between Tom and Hazel but then things fall apart in spectacular fashion.

Just over a year later, Hazel is living in London when an encounter with Tom sends her into freefall. He must never know why she cut off all contact last summer, betraying the promises that they had made.

But Hazel isn’t the only one with secrets, and she is not the only one with reasons to keep the two of them apart…

Compelling, rich in atmosphere and ideas, The Faithful is a double joy… a gripping tale of devotion, deception and desire, and a compelling portrait of a fascinating group of characters set against a nation marching inexorably towards war.

From the beaches of Sussex and the streets of war-torn London to the battlefields of civil war Spain, West works her special brand of literary magic as the multi-layered action unfolds and murky secrets are revealed, through the eyes of Tom, Hazel, Francine and Bea.

Family ties and loyalties take centre stage as the past catches up with the present and two generations must find resolution, forgiveness and acceptance, or sink into a morass of suspicion and grudges.

Written with West’s elegiac elegance, and brimming with understanding and compassion, The Faithful achieves what many authors aspire to… an outstanding follow-up to a successful debut.

(Mantle, hardback, £12.99)