Hello People in the Ether,
This debut by Lydia Syson is a thrilling, romantic, powerful and heartfelt description of war and love.
It's 1936 and Felix (short for Felicity) is a trainee nurse in the East End of London. She has all but escaped her claustrophobic, suburban background - apart from visits to a quiet mother, a judgemental brother and a sweet (but apparently dull) brother's best friend, George. In a dramatic opening we find her trapped in Whitechapel during a famous anti-fascist demonstration - where she meets an activist, Nat.
A tender courtship doesn't have much time to develop before Nat leaves to join the International Brigades in Spain against Franco's forces. At the prospect of being apart from Nat and wanting to avoid a proposal from George, Felix decides to flee to Spain too and there she volunteers as a battlefield nurse. Newspaper man, George, follows Felix in the hope of returning her safely to her family but he soon realises the merit of the anti-fascist struggle and enlists as a mechanic in the Brigades. So, a complicated and intense love triangle plays out against the backdrop of the battles and horrors of the Spanish Civil War - we follow each of our trio through the drama.
The plot is cleverly constructed; full of vivid set-pieces, political intrigue, questioned loyalties, exciting twists and bracing battle scenes. The romance, its thrills and pains, is very convincingly depicted and you do feel genuinely swept along with the pent-up passions and the world-falling-apart atmosphere.
Syson's style is subtle and gorgeous, she melts you into another time and place. The text is crystalline, by turns simple and poetic. Her pacing is really great, I found it compelling reading. She draws sharp, confused, flawed characters that you feel for, and occasionally feel frustrated with. George and Nat are honourable, steadfast, true matinee idols while Felix is honest, idealistic,naive and brave. I found the romance tender and exciting, and the battlefield medicine passages were visceral.
I think this is a nigh-perfect YA read, its engaging, pulsing, beautifully written and doesn't shy away from complicated facts and tough history. Equally highly recommended for early teens interested in history and politics or those wanting an intense love story without any supernatural hook.
Thanks for reading,