This is a Great War story of love/war, of duty/self-sacrifice, of denial of the truth and fear of change, of physical/mental scars. At the centre of the story is a lie told to protect. In My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young, Riley Purefoy and Nadine Waveney, children from different classes, meet in a London park. When war is declared, knowing the gulf in their backgrounds prevents them from marrying, Riley volunteers and goes off to war. In the trenches he meets commanding officer, Peter Locke, whose wife Julia and cousin Rose remain at home in Kent throughout the war. This is the story of these five people.
The first half of the book is a long set-up for the second half, when the interesting stuff begins. I made myself continue reading through the first half, and raced through the second. We see Riley and Nadine meeting, Riley’s transition from boy to teenager, his introduction to a new world. Nadine’s father is a famous conductor; their friends include musicians, writers and artists. He is taken under the wing of artist Sir Alfred who introduces him to art and music; good-looking Riley becomes a model for Sir Alfred and, fascinated by drawing and painting, leaves his old world behind. Peter deals with the trauma of the trenches by drinking and whoring, he is tight-lipped and distant with Julia who feels she must be doing something wrong to alienate him so. I found Julia a most unsympathetic character; she has been encouraged to believe in her own prettiness, is unable to break away from her spoiled pre-war life and allows her mother to bully her and remove her baby from her care. Her plain cousin Rose trained as a nurse and, having worked at the front, is now based at the Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup. Rose, in danger of being a stereotype, later in the story faces a dilemma about patient confidentiality that elevates her character. Riley is promoted through the ranks, popular with the men, knowing the right thing to say, when to josh them along. He is fond of his CO, sees him safely home when he is drunk. One leave, he meets Nadine in London and their friendship is rekindled.
The turning point of the story is war injury and damage, and how everyone reacts to it. This is a serious book, not quite the romantic read it is billed. Particularly excellent are the passages about the Queen’s Hospital and the amazing work of surgeon Major Gillies in facial reconstruction. Some of the descriptive passages are clinical and shocking and are a stark contrast to Julia’s worries about beauty treatments. However there is a lot of internal monologue which became repetitive and I also found the constant swapping of viewpoint mid-paragraph a distraction from the fine historical setting.
If you like this, try:-
‘The Lie’ by Helen Dunmore
‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry
‘Stay Where You Are and Then Leave’ by John Boyne
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU by @rileypurefoy #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-2Zg via @SandraDanby