"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.