Oh, what a beautiful story that Davina Blake has written in her novel, Past Encounters! I like so many genres of historical fiction, but I am always drawn to the books that feature flashbacking to WWII, with characters either telling their wartime story, or characters that tell their story while the reader gets to view how their lives unfolded after the war (whether 10 years or 40). I’m always interested in exploring the secrets someone left behind or how the psychology behind how war affected their personalities. If someone pulls out a long lost letter or photo or letters from their love who was away at war or abroad…..I’m hooked. I don’t read a lot of romance, but if I do, this is the type for me. I have a penchant for letters, long lost loves, and secrets.
Past Encounters was written after Davina was inspired by the movie “Brief Encounters” (circa 1945), which critics say is considered one of the great romances made by British film industry. It takes place surrounding a railway station, which before, during, and after the war was certainly a place of hustle and bustle during the war time era. Davina also sets part of her book here, during the flashback of her main female protagonist, and brings the filming of “Brief Encounters” into her novel. I loved how she intertwined the two, as I love old cinema too.
The secrets explored and discovered in this book are heart-wrenching and emotional, as most things are when they come down to love in a time full of turmoil. Hasty romances, marriages, loved ones gone due to war for extended periods, chance meetings, and the constant unknown of the WWII era, always allows for stories ripe with sorrow, loss, betrayal, and secrets.
From the moment I read the first part of the book, which takes us from a confused housewife in 1955 in Rhoda, then back to before and during the war with her husband Peter, his friend Archie, and his wife Helen, I was emotionally invested in finding out what happened to each of these characters between 1939 and when Peter returned from the war up to their present time of 1955. The way that she lays out the chapters and constructs the story makes it all flow together seamlessly. She was able to keep the story moving and on track, even with the use of flashbacks, making it all clear but while also able to hide her twists, turns, and secrets until the right time to unveil them. Just from the first few pages I was immediately captivated by Rhoda’s marriage plight and questions, became intrigued, and burned through the pages.
I did notice the change from Rhoda’s first person, to Peter’s part being third person, and later Helen’s; however, to me it worked, but it was a way to tell Peter and Helen’s side (a side that Rhoda couldn’t tell in present) without making him/her the star protagonist. I believe that was always Rhoda, and that ultimately, it was Rhoda’s story. I liked how she constructed it this way. It was unique, and for me, it worked.
I always enjoy Davina’s other novels, as Deborah Swift, which are more historical, but I truly loved her writing style even more in this book. She has a way with writing hauntingly beautiful prose that at first you might deem simple, but in reality, her character development and imagery are fine tuned. In this book, in this era with all its dark emotional drama, she writes as if she is penning a 1950s film. I felt as if her characters were so real, especially Rhoda, and that I knew them personally. My heart was really touched by their story, almost as if they were long lost loved grandparents. She brings an authenticity to her characters, bringing true thoughts and feelings to the surface, and even if some might not always think the choices right, they are certainly real and create depth in her characters.
I especially like lines such as:
“I could not help staring. It was as if they were from a different England altogether, one where young men didn’t die, where clothes were always new and well pressed. It was like two parakeets arriving in a world of sparrows.”
I think Davina truly is a masterful storyteller. In Past Encounters, she’s created a character-driven story that will linger on past the time when you think you’ve finished with the novel. The characters won’t leave you behind, but will haunt you. They’ll leave you wondering about all the possible true stories of this era, a time where it seemed everyone held secrets, whether from the war or in the heart.
I highly recommend this book for readers who enjoy whirlwind or intriguing romances as featured in 1950s films, emotional and gripping dramas from WWII era, and heart-wrenching tales of women and men whose past won’t stay in the past and who are tortured by love or some other emotion or secret. Davina has penned a beautifully executed novel that is a perfect read for Holiday vacation time, when you can snuggle up with a blanket and a book, becoming lost between the pages without a care for the clock.
As for me, I love railway stations. I’d like to take a trip to England, sit in the railway station with a hat and cup of tea, and read this book a second time. By chance, maybe I’d find a secret letter or hear a story or two from a passer-by. If I wasn’t already in a relationship, perhaps I’d even sit waiting for my own chance encounter.
Brief Encounters, Synopsis~
Genre: Historical Fiction/Literary Fiction
The day Rhoda Middleton opens a letter from another woman, she becomes convinced her husband, Peter, is having an affair. But when Rhoda tracks the mysterious woman down, she discovers she is not Peter’s lover after all, but the wife of his best friend, Archie Foster. There is only one problem – Rhoda has never even heard of Archie Foster.
Devastated by this betrayal of trust, Rhoda tries to find out why Peter has kept this friendship a secret for so long. Her search leads her back to 1945, but as she gradually uncovers Peter’s wartime experiences she must wrestle with painful memories of her own. For Rhoda too cannot escape the ghosts of the past.
Taking us on a journey from the atmospheric filming of Brief Encounter, to the extraordinary Great March of prisoners of war through snow-bound Germany, PAST ENCOUNTERS explores themes of friendship, hope, and how in the end, it is the small things that enable love to survive.
Includes bonus material for reading groups.
Praise for Past Encounters~
“Her characters are so real that they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf. Highly Recommended!” – The Historical Novels Review
Praise for Deborah Swift~!
“stellar historical fiction” -Orange Prize Nominee Ann Weisgarber
“compelling’” -Westmorland Gazette
“The past comes alive through impeccable research…and the sheer power of descriptive prose” -Lancashire Evening Post
Buy the Book~
Author Davina Blake, Biography~
Davina Blake used to be a set and costume designer for theatre and TV, during which time she developed a love of research which fueled her passion for the past. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and also writes successful seventeenth century historicals under the pen name Deborah Swift. ‘Her characters are so real that they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf. Highly recommended.’ The Historical Novels Review
From Davina: ‘I was inspired to write Past Encounters because I live close to the railway station where the iconic “Brief Encounter” was filmed in 1945. I have often used the refreshment room that featured in the film when waiting for a train. I love a good cup of tea, preferably accompanied by a chocolate brownie!’
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