7 July 2015

Book Review: The Silent Hours by Cesca Major

"The Silent Hours follows three people whose lives are bound together, before war tears them apart:

Adeline, a mute who takes refuge in a convent, haunted by memories of her past;

Sebastian, a young Jewish banker whose love for the beautiful Isabelle will change the course of his life dramatically;

Tristin, a nine-year-old boy, whose family moves from Paris to settle in a village that is seemingly untouched by war.

Beautifully wrought, utterly compelling and with a shocking true story at its core, The Silent Hours is an unforgettable portrayal of love and loss. "

Rating: 5/5

You can buy The Silent Hours as a paperback or an eBook now.

I know I don't review a lot of historical fiction on my blog, but that's because I honestly don't like books set a long, long time ago. My preferred period of history is the First and Second World Wars, something I studied for my degree, and I can credit that to my amazing history teacher at high school - no one brought it all to life for us better than Mrs T. When I was offered the opportunity to read and review Cesca Major's first novel The Silent Hours, I jumped at the chance. The story sounded utterly beautiful, set in the Second World War it was exactly what I wanted to read, and I was keen to see what the fuss online I had read was about. The book was utterly consuming, I was gripped from start to finish, and think Cesca Major is a real talent that I can't wait to read more from.

It is the time of the second world war, and in unoccupied France, the residents are trying to continue life as normal. Tristin, a nine year old boy has left his home in Paris and come to live in a small French village. He doesn't really understand fully what is happening, but knows that the changes in his life aren't good. Sebastian, a young Jewish banker, has fallen deeply in love with Isabelle, but as the war progresses, Sebastian experiences awful hatred because of his religion, and has to make a devastating decision to save not only himself, but Isabella too. Then, we have the narrative of Adeline. She currently lives in a convent in France, but is mute, too traumatised by her experiences of war to speak, despite the encouragement of the many nuns and doctors who want to help her.

Of course, you can't go into this book expecting everything to be lovely, and for it to be an easy read, because of course it isn't. We all know what happened in the war, what the Nazi's did to so many innocent people, and how the Jewish people were persecuted by them. It is still horrifying to this day that these attrocities were allowed to happen, but to read about them in this book, knowing it is based on a true story makes it all the more horrifying, that people really had to experience this. You can't imagine their terror, their horror and their suffering at the hands of absolute cruelty, but despite this, I couldn't stop reading. Major's narrative is utterly compulsive and I was so drawn into the story, I truly didn't want it to end.

There's a lot of first person narratives going on throughout the book. The narrator changes constantly through the book - sometimes we hear from Sebastian, Isabelle - often through her letters to her brother Paul who is at war himself -, Tristin, and of course Adeline too. While they are all of course different, they are all told from a first person perspective which makes reading interesting. There's quite a few names and characters to get your heard around, but once you do, reading is much more enjoyable. It does jump around quite a bit too due to the changing narrators, but again I soon got used to this and enjoyed the quick pace of the story-telling.

Perhaps the crux of the novel was the love story between Sebastian and Isabelle, forbidden love between a Jewish boy and his French lover, although Sebastian often didn't understand he and his family were being persecuted simply for being Jewish. I loved the pure love between them - religion didn't matter at all, yet it was ultimately what divided them. devastatingly so. It is such an innocent relationship, and it's heart-breaking that such love was divided by such incomprehensible hatred. It took a while for me to understand  how Sebastien fitted into the whole story, but as it became clear, I could enjoy his story more, even if it was heart-breaking to read how he comes to understand the hatred of his religion by some.

Isabelle's story, too, is very touching, and I enjoyed reading her letters to her brother Paul. She tried to remain upbeat and optimistic, and his replies were often hard to read, hiding the horror of the war from his sister, protecting her from what was really going on out there. Tristin's story was perhaps my least favourite of them all, feeling slightly stilted, perhaps due to the fact it is meant to be the narration of a 9 year old child. He, of course, does not understand why he had to flee his home in Paris and come to the countryside to the middle of nowhere, although he seems to adapt well, with his parents and siblings around him. He, however, seems to make assumptions about the situation based on what he hears from those around him, acts selfishly at times and his actions certainly made me want to cringe - he did not at all understand what was happening and the consequences his actions could have - this really is a coming-of-age story, that he had to cope with horrors beyond his years.

As the book progressed like a juggernaut towards an inevitably horrible ending, I was consumed  by their story, hopeful for a reprieve, but knowing what I did about the war, was sure that none would come. The last section of the book is truly horrifying, Major's writing brings to life the awful atrocities that occured, and you cannot comprehend what Isabelle, Tristin and their families went through at this time. It is simply awful, and I had tears streaming down my face several times, it was so emotional and difficult to read. Adeline's story was one I was trying to place, trying to understand what had rendered her mute, and as it all comes together, it is entirely heart-breaking and you can't help but weep for what she has suffered. The book is a stunning read, and it's hard to believe this is Cesca Major's debut novel - it is written so well, so vividly and I know I won't ever forget this book. Major has written with certainty, weaving facts with her fictional characters with ease, and her narrative is simply beautiful. I loved this book, it is simply unforgettable and I know my review won't have done it any justice. A stunning read.

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