All the world’s a stage.
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program.)
Germany, December 1938. Only weeks after Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass,” an orgy of organized violence against Jews in Germany and Austria), eleven-year-old Benjamin Goldman boards a Kindertransport train for England. Carrying just his school satchel and his cherished leather football, Benny is traveling light; with his father long since imprisoned by the Nazis, and a mother who lay dying of diphtheria, Benny has no one to see him off, and is eager to put his life in Germany behind him.
Once in England, Benny is “adopted” by Lord Sidney Dorner and his young wife Harriet. The wealthy couple pledged to sponsor twenty Jewish refugees; the best and brightest six boys are to stay at their Fairfleet estate, where they’ll receive a top-notch education from university professor Dr. Dawes. For the next six and a half years, Benny tries his best to assimilate into his new, adopted country. Having always felt an outsider, he’s determined to shed his German roots and become a “proper” Englishman. From day one at Fairfleet, Benny struggles to speak in English rather than German, even outside of the classroom. He excels in his studies and forms tentative friendships with his dorm mates.
And he falls in love with Harriet, his benefactor’s wife. An aviatrix who flies auxiliary air transport for the Allies, Harriet is as beautiful as she is charming and enigmatic. Happiest when piloting her beloved Spitfire planes, Harriet is rarely present during Benny’s formative years. Yet he finds himself pulled to her almost as strongly as she’s drawn to her prized Fairfleet.
But even as he builds a life for himself in England – graduating from Fairfleet to national service, university, and eventually a storied career in journalism – Benny Gault (as he’s now known) feels an outsider, weighed down by a devastating and shocking secret he’s been carrying since his last days in Germany.
Summer, 1981. When Clarissa’s husband suddenly leaves her for another woman, she and her two children – twelve-year-old Rose and brother Andrew – seek refuge with Clarissa’s socialite mum. The trio moves back to Clarissa’s childhood home: Fairfleet.
Plagued by the same mental illness that claimed her father James, Clarissa’s mental state begins to devolve – that is, until Harriet convinces her daughter to see a psychiatrist. While on lithium, her mood stabilizes; and, though the medication makes her feel slow and sluggish, and not at all herself, Clarissa promises her mother that she’ll stay the course – for her family’s sake. Life begins to fall into a calm, steady rhythm. And then Harriet is unexpectedly struck down by a ruptured appendix (of all things!).
In the wake of their loss, a wanderer named Cathal Pearse enters the picture. Slowly but surely he worms his way into the Madisons’ lives: starting with odd jobs, he soon becomes a full-time employee, eventually convincing Clarissa to school the children at Fairfleet under his tutelage. He seduces the vulnerable Clarissa, drugs her with sleeping pills, and withholds her medication. Longtime housekeeper Alice “Smithy” Smith – who might love the old bricks and mortar of Fairfleet as much as Harriet – remains suspicious of Cathal’s intentions, and is eventually driven from the home for her trouble.
In six short months, Cathal has manipulated the family so that they’re completely under his control; isolated and dependent. Tensions come to a head one snowy winter night and, thirty years later, Rose still shoulders the guilt for her role in the events that led to her mother’s death.
Present day. When hospice nurse Rosamond Hunter is offered a job at Fairfleet, her boyfriend and brother beg her not to take it. What good can come of revisiting the traumatic events that unfolded at the Fairfleet estate more than thirty years ago? But Rosamond – known as Rose all those years ago – is desperate to prove to Andrew that their mother really did love them, that in her more lucid moments she tried her best to protect them from the monster known as Cathal. Rosamond needs to find a letter: the letter that Clarissa wrote to her lawyer. The letter that was never posted, but instead stashed in the drawer of an old bureau in the basement. The one that will prove Clarissa’s redemption.
When she takes the job, neither Rosamond nor Benny is aware of the ties binding them: to Fairfleet, to Harriet, and ultimately to one another. As Benny draws closer to the end, his desire for forgiveness and understanding overwhelm the shame that’s engulfed him for the past seventy years – and both their secrets come rushing to the surface.
I expected The One I Was to be “just” another piece of historical Holocaust fiction, maybe with a little thread of mystery woven in. (Scare quotes because such novels are anything but ordinary; there’s nothing “just” about them. And yet another qualifier escapes me.) I couldn’t have been more wrong. The One I Was is like no other Holocaust fiction I’ve ever read: equal parts mystery, suspense, romance, coming of age, and – yes – historical fiction, The One I Was is a unique animal. Captivating, well-written (and professionally edited! I don’t always expect this of ebooks!), and full of tension, I can’t say enough good things about it. On more than one night I stayed up entirely too late, repeating the mantra “just one more chapter!” before bedtime.
While all the characters are convincingly rendered and multidimensional, I especially loved Harriet. Through her wartime activities, we get a sense of the opportunities that opened up to women during World War II – and the crippling sense of disappointment, unfairness, and (yes) stifling captivity when some of them were later forced to return to the domestic sphere. And yet she’s not without her flaws: her would-be affair with 17-year-old Benny is problematic at best, since she and Lord Dorner are his guardians – for a third of his short life, in fact – even as Harriet was rarely present at Fairfleet to provide the boys with comfort or guidance.
Two fractured people, Benny and Rose are kindred spirits – one trapped by a decades-old lie, the other living a life stunted by the things done to her in childhood. Graham expertly weaves their narratives together, providing a poignant look at the dynamics of interpersonal violence, as well as the confusion and chaos of wartime and the absurdity of stereotypes and prejudice. Five stars.