DAYS OF GRACE is a fantastic novel, but do not be deceived by the innocent-looking image on the front cover - this book packs a punch, and a very good one at that.
At the age of 12, Nora leaves war-torn London for the Kent countryside. Upon her arrival she is chosen by Grace Rivers, a girl the same age as herself, and so she goes to her new home. Nora and Grace quickly develop a bond like that of sisterhood, but Nora slowly develops other feelings for Grace, feelings which confuse her and torment her. It is then not long that her seemingly idyllic life begins to crumble, as she learns that not all is as it seems within the household - everyone seems to have their secrets.
But these secrets are only revealed to others as Nora is an old lady, dying of cancer. It is only because she knows she is on her way out of life that she feels comfortable to tell the truth of her past.
That is a brief synopsis. The novel flits from Nora's past, growing up with Grace, to the present, as she is dying from the disease. It is through these two narratives that we are able to witness history repeating itself and the terrible effects this may have for all concerned.
What I loved about this book was how the characters were so well realised. I felt that I knew all of them intimately, not just Nora. Hall's study of love and how it can consume you and very nearly destroy you was expertly done. Setting it against the backdrop of the Second World War, added to the effect of the book - at one point Nora can hear a nearby building being destroyed by a bomb; as she talks about this, you cannot help but think about how her world is slowly crumbling on the inside too.
I loved this book. I would highly recommend it to others.
on 7 April 2009
I bought Days of Grace having read reviews in various newspapers and I am delighted to say it exceeded all my expectations! The friendship between Nora and Grace catapulted me onto a roller coaster of emotion and it was only when I finished the last wonderful page that was I able to realise fully how moved I was by the depth of their relationship, the corrosive nature of Nora's secret that ate away at her for all those years and how Catherine Hall managed to keep me in suspense until the bitter end. I am not surprised to read that she has been deeply influenced by Jeanette Winterson and Jean Rhys. Catherine Hall has all the hallmarks of a great writer and I am waiting with baited breath for her next offering!
This is one of the most enjoyable books I've recently read. It's well written, well thought out and told with such elegance, feeling and sophistication. The story is of Nora at two times of her life - when she was a frightened twelve year old evacuee, and then later when she is just weeks from her own death. At both stages of her life, and probably for most of the in between too, she was obsessed with Grace - Grace as a young beautiful teenager and later for the love and beautiful friendship that she lost. Grace was the sister she never had, the friend she so desperately needed and the love she dared not act upon.
There is a great deal of sadness, reality and danger which is matched by such a lot of passion, gentleness and subtlety. I found the book totally engrossing and couldn't wait to get to the end - a very surprising end - and look forward to reading it all again soon, but more slowly to really savour this excellent moving story. I would thoroughly recommend.
on 14 February 2010
I love wartime stories set in england and the review on the back of the book told me that this would be that and a bit of sarah waters thrown in. I think the writer is great and she certainly created a page turner and will go on to write many books. But I found the book dragged me down. It was a sad story about sad people with no light at the end of the tunnel. But the main issue i had, was that i did not like the main character Nora. The writer says that she and her agent set out to make Nora more sympathetic than in the original draft, but i am not sure it went far enough. I found myself getting impatient with Noras maudlin outlook, her jealousy not just for Grace but later Rose and then that last scene with Graces lover which I felt was bizarre. She was wracked with guilt for her feelings for Grace but was she guilty about what she did to Graces boyfriend. That wasnt so clear to me. We saw throughout the novel that Nora was very complex and quite a dark character and there were indications that she could go over the edge but to go that far over the edge was quite unexpected. I thought the character of Grace was not that well developed. She seemed like a light hearted good time girl who wanted to get away from her sad home life, but I didnt feel there was much depth to her. The parents were also given short shrift I felt. Finally, as Nora made friends with prostitutes on the streets of london, one could have imagined that she could have found her way through those friendships to a gay scene in the city. But that was not explored by the book and must not have entered Noras head either. There is not much said at all about the 50 years after the war up to the time that Grace dies, except that she lived a quiet life running a book shop.
Are we too spoiled by fiction that we expect to have to like the hero in a book. In a way, you could say that the author was brave to stick to her guns with the Noras unappealing ways. But I have to confess that Noras ways put me off the book and I was glad to finish it.
A real page turner
A few nights before the start of the Easter break, I picked this book up in the mistaken belief that it would help me to fall asleep. Grave error! Five chapters in, and I was totally engrossed! I had to force myself to put it down, as I had to teach the following morning. Not only was the plot engrossing, but also the descriptions were incredibly vivid - particularly the description of Nora's first Sunday lunch at the rectory, which honestly made my mouth water as I read it!
Two plots and two different time periods run concurrently in this intriguing book, as we meet its heroine, Nora, at two very different periods in her life; one near the beginning and the other, close to the end.
The first plot focuses on her as she enters her teens and follows her through the next five years of her life. As a 12 year old, she is evacuated from London to Kent to escape the bombings; where she is adopted by a vicarage family, becoming a sister to their daughter, Grace, who is only five days younger than her. Secrets and mysteries surround the quiet vicarage where the girls grow up together, exploring the hidden pool and the rest of the area around where they live.
The second plot features Nora at the end of her life. Dying of cancer, she `adopts' a young 18/19 year old, Rose, and her newborn daughter after acting as a midwife during the birth of the child when Rose was living in a bedsit in the house opposite. Given the opportunity to name the child, Nora calls her `Grace' after her childhood friend.
Why the urge to do all this? All becomes clear as we reach the end of this extremely gripping novel.
Another great book for the beach during your summer holidays! Enjoy it! I did!
"Days of Grace" is a story of a young girl, Nora, who is evacuated from the close, intimate world of the East End where she lives with her mother. From the style of the cover and the wealth of World War 2 nostalgia literature available, I was half-expecting a sentimental, Blitz spirit, good-old-days novel with syrupy sentimentality.
How wrong could I be - Nora is a far more complicated character than that, and Hall has no intention of using her well-trodden path of WW2 literature to write an indulgent novel. Sent away from her old world to a spacious rectory in the Kent countryside, Nora feels abandoned from the fierce, close relationship with her mother and finds her host parents to be distant and cold. She throws herself into a sisterly relationship with Grace, who as she grows in teenage years becomes increasingly the focus of her desires.
A brutal secret finally revealed to her which explains the chilly, distant relationship of Grace's parents, and a betrayal by the rector, causes Nora and Grace to escape, but Nora's dream of her and Grace against the world is frustrated by the realities of society, with her love having to remain silent and Grace moving into directions she can't stand. Grace and Nora's relationship is over forever by a dramatic event, and Nora is left with secrets she carries with her into solitude for the rest of her life.
The book uses a standard flashback formula, alternating between Nora as a young girl and the last days of her life as an elderly lonely woman who breaks her vow of solitude and lets another young girl into her life, who of course bears a certain relationship to Grace and allows her, to a small extent, to atone for her past life.
This is a beautiful novel which is raw and brutal - Hall pulls no punches and has an excellent eye for human emotion. I agree that Nora seems to become somewhat less sympathetic as the book goes along, but I think perhaps other reviewers are perhaps forgetting just what misery she faced, and perhaps are not quite as sympathetic to Nora's feelings for Grace as they would have been had Grace been male - I think modern society is forgetting just how impossible it would have been for Nora to make her feelings plain, and need to remember the incredible pain of unrequited love is intensified further when that love cannot even be expressed to start with, let alone be spurned.
A sad book, but refreshingly honest and well-written.
on 14 February 2009
There are a lot of books about evacuees, the second world war, wealth versus poverty, and so on - but not many like this. Days of Grace is an utterly approachable book; you feel immediately at one with all the characters, but it is written with far more talent and beauty than the "chicklit" you may expect it to be when reading the synopsis on the back page. Catherine Hall is a truly gifted writer and there is some breathtaking imagery. Take for example this passage of a bombed-out street:
"A nightdress flapped in the branches of one of the them as if the tree were trying to cover its nakedness... the houses were ... scalped of their roofs... leaivng flights of stairs like vertebrae"
This is a story of love, friendship and redemption. I read it in one sitting and would definitely read it again or give a copy to a friend. My one criticism would be - I want to know more about what happened to Nora in the "in between years". I felt that that part of the story was rather rushed over; but I suppose it was of little consequence as Nora lived in the past to the very end. Highly recommended!
on 13 March 2012
MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!
The plot is decent enough and the writing is quite good, but at almost all points it lacks that extra something that puts a writer in the class of, for example, Susan Hill or Rose Tremain. What is that something? Difficult to explain, but it involves a depth of character and a depth of descriptive writing that holds you with every sentence. This book, though completely sincere and decent, is just a little too bland in the writing. Consequently the story-telling is not as gripping as the excellent plot requires. In addition (or 'plus', in the horrid modern vernacular) the vitally important character of the spiv in the later stages of the book is no more than cardboard, and his death is unconvincing. On the other hand, the writer handles very well the 'illness' sequences, both that of Grace and that of the narrator herself. So I give it about 6.5 out of 10, or 7 if I am feeling generous to a first novel (if that is what it is).
This is an interesting book and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
It is all about the life of a girl/woman called Nora and it alternates between her life as a teenage evacuee and the change in her life from the poorest of London to a rectory in Kent during the war and an old lady with terminal cancer.
I didn't particularly like Nora because of the way she allowed her feelings to make her bitter but I could also see that if she had lived in a different era, if people had been around to help her come to terms with her emotions, her life would have been so much happier.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book because I was able to form images of places, times, and people in my mind. It was interesting and I read it in one sitting which is unusual for me.
On another note, I loved the feel and size of the book together with the illustration on the front. Wonderful!
Once again the old saying proves correct - I judged this book by the cover and I had it totally, *totally* wrong.
Here was me thinking this will be a lightweight coming of age tale of two girls in the second world war, scrumping apples, stretching out their ration books as far as possible, and generally having a grand old time until the war ends and they go their separate ways.
About 5 pages in I knew I was wrong and I knew I was hooked. 'Days of Grace' turns out to be this gem of a book that comes along every so often, that doesn't look like much, but ends up being quite the mover. The main character, Nora, is that wonderfully flawed heroine that we usually like to see, but more than that, she is completely aware of her faults and doesn't really want to do anything to change them...which oddly makes her endearing. The story is told in alternating chapters, first of the present, where Nora is terminally ill, and then of the 1940's past where she is an evacuee sent to Kent.
The approach means we get two stories that are wound together really nicely by Catherine Hall, who attacks each chapter with the same kind of fast moving, free flowing prose. Don't get me wrong, it's not hard to keep up - it's rather that the author isn't spending pages having a character agonise over a decision, or discussing in great detail the exact colour of a flower. This means we're free to move on with the story, and free to draw our own conclusions, which is what I look for in a book.
I was also astonished to re-read the front page which says our author is only 35 years old. I was totally convinced of the authenticity of the descriptions of war time Britain, so Hall must have really done her research.
A lot will probably be made of the theme of Nora being in love with her Foster Sister (the Grace of the title), but this is always handled sensitively, never crudely, and it's good to see an author dealing with the subject without trying to make it the point of the book.
I had to knock off one star because there are a couple of points where the plot gets a mite predictable, but in the end, that's probably the story I wanted to read anyway. Overall, a triumph, and I will be keeping an eye out for more from Catherine Hall.