The rough winds of war have been replaced by an uneasy peace in the second book of historian Kate Williams’ gripping 20th century trilogy.
The once wealthy half-English, half-German de Witt family is struggling to cope in a world transformed by four years of conflict and social change, and a terrible scandal is set to engulf their hopes for a better future.
Welcome back to Williams’ epic historical novel series which brought late Edwardian England to life in The Storms of War and now plunges us into the fast-beating heart of 1920s London where glitz and glamour jostle with the painful aftermath of a cruel war.
Williams, an author and social historian, has her finger firmly on the pulse of a nation in flux, focusing her keen eye on the lives of just one family and, through their fortunes and misfortunes, exploring the human cost of the unrelenting tide of history.
Torn apart by personal tragedy and German-born Rudolf de Witt’s long internment in a camp on the Isle of Wight, his 20-year-old daughter Celia must negotiate the pleasures and pitfalls of the new jazz age whilst harbouring a dark wartime secret.
With his meat business in tatters and his imposing Tudor mansion, Stoneythorpe Hall, a shabby shadow of its former self, Rudolf and his aristocratic English wife Verena have seen the loss of almost everything they hold dear.
Still reeling from the death of their second son Michael on the Western Front, they don’t know how to function in the post-war world of 1919. The hall has become an empty shell and there are no servants to ensure its upkeep. It is as if the war has ‘aged everything, dirtied it all.’
The family’s German roots still cast a long shadow over them all and younger daughter Celia, who ran away to join the war effort in France, is feeling unsettled and confined, admitting to herself that she simply doesn’t know what to do with the peace.
When her orphaned teenage cousin Louisa Deerhurst comes to live at Stoneythorpe, Celia hopes she has found a much-needed ally but her eldest brother Arthur de Witt, recently returned to England after spending the war in Paris, has other ideas and soon tragedy strikes.
Desperate to escape home, eager to leave behind the painful secrets that lie there and yearning to spread her restless wings, Celia moves to London and embraces life and love in the Roaring Twenties.
But along the way, she must face temptation and deception, and learn that those she loves most might be the ones she should least trust…
Much of the fascination and delight of Williams’ sweeping saga lies in the historian’s attention to detail and accuracy but the novelist in her also recognises that the realities of living through changing times provide an absorbing backdrop, heart-wrenching pathos and unexpected human dramas.
The de Witt family’s struggles are a compelling, vibrant and poignant fictional reflection of living history and if the next chapter of their story unfolds with the same emotional power and extraordinary resonance, then we are in for another treat.
(Orion, hardback, £14.99)