In 1974 a young couple move into a house beside Clapham Common in London and begin the long task of doing it up. Some months into their refurbishment, when working in the garden, they make a shocking discovery: the skeleton of a woman in her late twenties, who has been murdered with a blow to the back of the head. She died some time between 1945 and 1947. But who is she? Rewind thirty years to autumn 1945, to a London emaciated and embittered by wartime privation, where the thrill of victory has worn off to leave behind an aching desperation. Intelligence officer Gus Clifton returns home from his posting in Berlin to his family home in Clapham; to his sisters Julia and Tilly, and his fiancee Nella. It should have been a happy homecoming. But it bears a sting in the tail, for Gus comes home with his new wife. Krista. A German woman.
Buchan’s book is framed by a murder mystery – not so much ‘whodunnit’ as ‘who is she’ – but this is a bit of a red herring, because it isn’t really about that at all. It’s a probing examination of what war does to allegedly civilised people: how the announcement of peace does little to salve open wounds and terrible bereavements. Yes, it offers a stark picture of what London was like in these lean months after the war, when the euphoria has died away, leaving behind rationing and misery and broken families and broken homes. These aren’t the plucky Londoners of cosy fiction, but a tribe of people who are still simmering with hatred. For seven years they’ve been taught to hate the Germans, and you can’t switch off hate with the signing of a treaty. When Krista Clifton walks through the front door of number 22 on her husband’s arm, her fragile, undernourished body becomes a lodestone for all the pain caused by the war.
And there is plenty of pain here. Gus’s eldest sister Julia is the widow of a dashing RAF pilot, an uptight woman mourning her one brief moment of happiness, which went down in flames in a Belgian field. Julia’s grief for her husband is still so fresh as to be almost strangling in its intensity, and she can scarcely believe that her brother has dared to waltz home from Berlin with the enemy on his arm. Their younger sister Tilly seems to have done well out of the war, poring over aerial photographs in an intelligence office, but the freedom on offer has resulted in a self-destructive spiral of bohemianism, driven by private anguish to drugs, drink and non-conformity. Gus’s fiancee Nella, who lives just down the road, is an old family friend and their engagement is a longstanding one, looked on by both families as a way to formalise a deep existing friendship. Beautiful and fragile, Nella is completely blindsided by the arrival of Gus’s new wife. Her brother Teddy, once Gus’s best friend but now war-wounded and angry, takes it as a personal insult. With one impulsive act, Gus has rewired the course of several lives.
Those around Gus in London constantly remind him of how they’ve suffered – and now, to have their noses rubbed in it! Yes, London did suffer. Homes were bombed, families killed, streets obliterated, men wiped out, food rendered poor-quality and scanty. It was a brutal, bitter time. But, through Krista, Buchan invites us to compare London with Berlin in the months after the war. Berlin’s buildings are in rubble. There is no shelter, no food, no warmth. Everyone is terrified. The people are used to being watched, followed, reported upon. Now that the Reich has fallen, everything has broken down. Bombers scream overhead day and night. The occupying soldiers – both Soviets and Allies – rape and murder without a second thought. The women are spoils of war, no matter who or where they are. Starved, brutalised, demonised, clinging to life more from habit than desire, watching her loved ones die around her, Krista has had a typical experience. She knows that coming to London will make her hated. She knows that her new family and her new neighbours will want her dead, as a scapegoat. But, plagued by what we would now diagnose as PTSD, anything is better than the nightmare she has lived in Berlin.
Buchan’s story is also one of guilt. War guilt, yes. Survivor’s guilt. Krista’s ingrained guilt about her country, which she has to wear like a brand in order to placate those around her in London. Gus’s guilt about his betrayal of Nella. Julia’s guilt about her helpless loathing of her new sister-in-law. And so forth. In fact the whole story is driven by guilt – as we come to discover, Gus and Krista’s marriage is itself an expiation for guilt: the act of a basically good man, trying to redeem himself. And of course there are other reasons to feel guilty as the novel progresses, culminating in that female skeleton buried in the garden. It is clever, deeply clever, of Buchan to leave that final, great guilt simmering unresolved. The final sentence of the 1974 prologue, in which the police begin to trace the next of kin, hint at the shocking revelation that’s still to come. The people involved in this story haven’t closed the book and moved on. They’re about to hear news which will reopen all the old wounds; so, in fact, the story hasn’t ended at all.
This was a much darker story than I expected. It goes into very bleak places and offers a sobering picture of human nature – but there are still glimmers of hope: hope that love can grow out of necessity; that a new generation can begin to heal divisions; that understanding, rather than division, might win out. Buchan keeps the tension taut and simmering: you’re constantly trying to think ahead, to predict how the story will lead to that woman buried in the garden. Gripping and very well written, it’s exactly the kind of book for a long journey or a day when you can just lose yourself for a few hours.
I think I’m going to have to dig out some more of Buchan’s work.