Title: Letters from Skye
Author: Jessica Brockmole
Publisher: Random House UK, Cornerstone
Read: July 06 - 07, 2013
A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole’s atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.
March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence—sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets—their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he’ll survive.
June 1940: At the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth’s house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago.
Two things instantly drew me to Letters from Skye when I came across it on Netgalley: its historical setting spanning both World Wars and the fact that the Isle of Skye has always intrigued me and is firmly engraved on my travel list (one day …..). I am happy to say I was not disappointed! Letters from Skye is a touching story of forbidden wartime romance, spanning two generations and two separate continents.
At twenty-four years of age Elspeth Dunn has never once left her home on the remote Isle of Skye due to her phobia of water and crossing the sea. Being somewhat of a dreamer she lives a reclusive life in the small cottage she shares with her fisherman husband, roaming the countryside and writing poetry. One day a fan letter arrives from far away America – David Graham, a college student in Illinois, has read one of her books whilst lying injured in hospital, and wanted to tell her how he has found solace in her poetry. One letter soon becomes a regular correspondence between Eslpeth (“Sue”) and Davey, as the two young people share their most intimate thoughts and dreams, finding a soul-mate in each other despite their personal circumstances and geographical distance. When the first World War breaks out, their friendship turns into more than just letters, and soon they are faced with some difficult choices ….
Twenty-six years later, Elspeth’s daughter Margaret Dunn accidentally finds one of the letters written by Davey to “Sue” and is surprised about her mother’s reaction when confronting her about it. Realising about how little she knows about her mother’s past and her extended family, Margaret decides to investigate. When her mother suddenly disappears, her quest takes her on a journey she has never imagined ….
Jessica Brockmole’s epistolary novel is told entirely by letters written between Davey and Elspeth, and later between Elspeth’s daughter Margaret, her fiancé Paul and her uncle Finlay. Although drawn by the content of the novel, I was worried that I would not like the unusual format, as I have never been fond of the epistolary style in the past and have even found it quite tedious at times. I am glad to say however that my fears were totally unfounded, as I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel! With Elspeth and Davey confiding their most private thoughts, hopes and dreams, the book felt strangely intimate, as if glimpsing into the very souls of its characters. Davey’s humour was refreshing and brought a smile to my face, and I could vividly picture his antics in college just as I had no trouble imagining a quiet and reflective Elspeth roaming the wild island and losing herself in nature. Having lived in some very remote places myself (before email), I related to Elspeth’s sense of isolation and her joy in being able to share her most private thoughts and dreams with a penpal thousands of miles away.
Like its modern counterpart Love Virtually (told by a sequence of emails between two strangers who fall in love through their correspondence), Letters from Skye tackles the topic of soul-mateship, of two people being able to connect intimately without ever having laid eyes on each other. I loved the way Elspeth’s and Davey’s friendship slowly develops and makes each person grow as their unusual relationship affirms their very personality, makes them become truer to themselves. Although I did not get the same connection to Margaret and her letters, they serve their purpose in telling the second part of the tale and bring the story to full-circle. The one problem with the letters arose when characters experienced situations together – how to best share those with the reader? This created moments where characters had to re-hash shared experiences to one another in their letters, which did not quite ring true. However, this did not impair my enjoyment of the novel.
Having a weakness for anything set amongst the backdrop of the first or second World War, I loved the novel’s historical content, especially Davey’s descriptions of his life on the front in the French countryside as an ambulance driver. I could relate to his sense of purpose there, and found it easy to imagine how the camaraderie and mateship between the men would have drawn many other young men into battle only to lose their lives there.
Probably my only slight disappointment with the novel was its ending – this was one time where an open ending would have worked much better for me, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination rather than trying to stitch it all up too neatly. But for fear of spoilers I will not say any more about it here.
In summary, I really enjoyed reading Letters from Skye – curled up in front of the fire I soon lost myself in the novel’s landscape and its characters and it brought to life a different era. Letters from Skye is a quick, undemanding and enjoyable read which should appeal to lovers of historical fiction & romance (saying the word “romance” with trepidation since I am not a fan of lovey-dovey romance but really enjoyed this book – I even had a tear in my eye here and there).
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher Random House UK, Cornerstone for providing me with a free electronic preview copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.