Aultbea, a small fishing village on the shores of Loch Ewe on the west coast of Scotland, was transformed during World War Two into a Royal Navy base for the Arctic convoys. Into this true history Fiona Valpy weaves the fictional story of Flora Gordon in The Skylark’s Secret.
In 1977, Lexie Gordon returns to Loch Ewe from London after the death of her mother Flora. Lexie arrives home a single mother to baby Daisy, her West End singing career broken because of her damaged vocal chords. She feels a failure, gossiped about by the locals, seen as an outsider. Living in her mother’s cottage, she becomes curious about the father she never met and who her mother never spoke freely about.
In this dual timeline story, the narrative alternates clearly between Lexie in the Eighties and Flora in 1940-1944. Flora lives with her widowed father, Iain, gamekeeper for local estate Ardtuath House, in a quiet village where the toughest enemy is the weather. Then one day a fleet of warships arrive, the first of many. Loch Ewe is to become the temporary base for the Home Fleet. As thousands of navy ratings and officers arrive, Iain and Flora hope her brother Ruaridh will be aboard one of the destroyers. The convoys are to change life by the loch forever. Flora and her two friends Bridie and Mairi enlist in the Wrens as drivers. Laird’s son Alec also returns home with an English girlfriend. When Alec admits his lifelong love for Flora, the two young people must face the disapproval of the intimidating laird. With both Alec and Ruaridh on separate ships accompanying the Arctic convoy of merchant ships sailing for Russia, Flora fears for their lives. Meanwhile, a group of evacuees arrive from Glasgow, including two ragamuffins who lodge with bossy but kind-hearted Moira Carmichael.
Valpy unravels the story of Flora’s war years, the hardships, the danger, the exhilarating moments of freedom when the two young men arrive home safe. But always on the horizon is the next convoy which must face the twin dangers of Arctic ice and marauding U-boats. In 1978, Lexie must make a place for herself and Daisy in the community which includes her mother’s old friend Bridie, Lexie’s schoolfriend Elspeth, and fisherman Davy. She feels a stranger and takes to walking the hills, remembering times with her mother, trying to find her place in the world.
This is a story of wartime courage, romantic entanglements, fear, grief and gratitude for sacrifices made. A well-researched book that shows that research with a light hand on the page, allowing the fictional story room to breathe. Excellent.
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THE SKYLARK’S SECRET by @FionaValpy #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-53P via @SandraDanby