by Wendy Waters
Set mainly in the 1930s but with detours to 2009 and encompassing London, Devon, Paris, Germany and Australia, Fields of Grace is an epic saga of a novel in which we are introduced to Grace Fieldergill, a young actress who takes the London stage by storm as an understudy in John Gielgud’s Company. Life is glittering for Grace as she realises her ambitions and against all odds, finds love; but as Europe teeters of the brink of war, life will never be the same for Grace again…
Fields of Grace is a brilliant novel that I struggled to put down. Ms Waters is a writer who certainly knows her craft. There is an immediate reassuring confidence to her writing that makes it supremely comfortable to read. The words just sweep you easily up, along and into the narrative. The descriptive detail and imagery of Glyndebourne and Paris are among some of the best I have read, it was just exquisitely rendered, conjuring the world it describes with seemingly effortless yet sublimely beautiful prose. There are so many angles within the plot that within a lesser writer’s hands, it could become over-ambitious but every strand and tangent is given equal attention and depth to enable them to dovetail marvellously; I especially liked the gentle overlay of the supernatural, it was perfectly done and entirely credible.
The book opens with ninety-seven-year-old Grace, knowing she will die and be reunited with the love of her life, John. In the conversations with her Granddaughter, Sam, we are given hints of the conflicts that have plagued her life. The narrative flickers back and forth for a few chapters between 2009 and 1934 before we are plunged into the pre-war world of the London theatre. I know a little about this scene having studied the life of Vivien Leigh from quite an early age (who incidentally is mentioned a quarter of the way in and continues to be referenced). I think Ms Waters conjures up that environment and its inhabitants excellently, especially Peggy Ashcroft. However, you don’t need knowledge of those actors to enjoy this book; they are humanised as individuals rather than caricaturised making them completely accessible and their lives understood.
All of the characters portrayed are convincing; even fairly minor players are wonderfully realised with subtle, believable and distinguishing traits and the dialogue contains some deft comedic touches. From Grace’s parents in Devon to the boarders at Wyncote House, all of them are given life, interest and intrigue. Georgina Pickard was one of the standouts, her emotionally damaged and poignant portrayal is quite affecting and the relationship between her and Grace is profoundly nuanced. Ms Waters confronts some topics that were problematic and illegal during the 1930s and she does so with realism and sensitivity. John is a complex character, selfish and unlikeable at times. As is Grace; she can irritate and despite the issues with John, her life is a little too wonderful in parts but this is ably remedied in the late 1930s when the book takes a darker turn. Grace matures and the scenes with Dashiell are heart-rending. He is a pathetic figure but one, you do feel desperately sorry for, as Grace holds a slightly idealistic view of John. The nature of Grace’s relationship with her son, Christian, was an unusually brave move and it worked excellently; balancing and adding shadow to the earlier light and occasional froth.
Fields of Grace is a magnificent book, captivating the reader with a wonderfully involving story and beautifully worked prose. Highly recommended.