by William McClain
Spring 1939, Weymouth, England, and fifty-eight-year-old Alice Standfield has just buried her husband, Edgar.
Apprehensive at what the future might hold yet secretly excited to re-discover herself and her interests after being stifled under four decades of marriage, Alice has a few months alone to do just that before the gathering clouds of war grow darker over Weymouth and her two youngest grandchildren, Martin and Irene, are evacuated from London to stay with her…
McClain advises that Alice’s War is not your prototypical WWII novel, and indeed it isn’t. Although the impact of war seen through the lens of everyday citizens and the effect on their daily lives and relationships is a well-trodden path, there is an unconventional quality to Alice’s War, which mirrors the personality of its titular character.
Indeed, Alice is partly responsible for the novel’s unusual freshness. There is a definite yet subtle nonconformity to her and a refreshing honesty. In the opening chapter, she navigates her husband’s wake much as she approaches life itself; with fair open-mindedness, gentle curiosity, and the occasional sense of quiet amusement.
In a lesser writer’s hands, she may not have been dynamic enough to have driven the story, but McClain renders her compelling. She is acutely observed and there is something immediately arresting about her and incredibly likable.
McClain’s narrative serves her several bombs, literally and figuratively, but she adapts and, each time she does, another fascinating and, often unexpected but believable layer is added to her personality.
However, Alice’s is not the only perspective in the novel. Martin is also central and chapters roughly alternate between the two characters’ points of view, both of whom share an empathetic connection.
In contrast to Alice’s journey through late middle age, Martin comes of age during the novel, and he is a reflective, slightly introverted character, full of hidden sensitivities, which are due in no small part to the emotional neglect he experiences from his parents.
His trajectory through the novel is convincing and compulsive to read especially when self-assured Ellis, the friend he makes in Weymouth, and Sonja, the Jewish refugee enter his life. The three develop an intriguing dynamic weighted with unspoken emotion and intensity.
Lesser characters are depicted with originality, individuality, and depth. Major Peter Gurin, although relatively minor is a supreme example. Elizabeth Chambers, the self-appointed alpha female of the Weymouth community could have been pantomimic, but McClain portrays her with restraint and the ability to repress nastiness while keeping it visible.
As the war deepens, McClain introduces a surprising number of credible subplots with clever little twists, motifs, and reveals. All are engaging and most tackle weighty issues but with a lightness of touch and an assurance and intimacy in tone. His prose is beautifully writerly. Straightforward yet elegant, it sparkles with polish and perception.
Integral to the story is the coastal town of Weymouth. McClain vividly and poignantly unfolds its evolution from a gentle seaside resort to a military bastion together with the simmering tensions and suspicions of the inhabitants, which eventually begin to boil over.
As the novel draws toward its conclusion, the reader is entirely curious about how it will play out, especially as there is a life-changing disclosure and an important new character introduced fairly close to the end. Personally, McClain pitches the denouement perfectly to complement the fluid tenor of the narrative.
Character-driven, multi-layered, and thoroughly absorbing, Alice’s War is an absolute gem. Highly recommended.