The Darkest Hour by Barbara Erskine
My rating: 9/10
One Sentence Verdict: Mysterious and evocative, this story has an engaging plot with a number of twists, and both time-frames bring together richly drawn characters in a plot both convincing and atmospheric
I’ve never given a 10/10 in all the time I’ve been writing these book reviews, but I’ve got to say that this one came close. At nearly 550 pages, it’s not a short one, but I was so engrossed in The Darkest Hour that I read it in about a day. I literally couldn’t put it down! Anyone who knows my reading habits will know that at the moment, and for the last year or so, I’ve been obsessed with a certain kind of book.
These books nearly always work on a variation of some or all of the following… a) a split between wartime Europe (WW1 or WW2, usually England, France or Germany) and the modern day, involving b) a suspicious or just downright tragic death of a family member of the main character in the modern day story, c) a painting, and d) one or more ill-fated or difficult love stories. The Darkest Hour has all of them. Oh, and it also has ghosts. What more could you ask for, right?
Lucy Standish is an art historian whose husband died in a car crash a couple of months previous to the start of the main story. She has decided to write a biography on the life and work of Evelyn Lucas, a wartime artist who painted scenes of the Battle of Britain over Sussex, where she lived, despite the fact that most of the artists commissioned to do this work were men, and Lucas was very young when she was painting these scenes – only nineteen years old.
Lucy has a painting by Lucas, and finds that under a layer of extra paint, a figure has been painted out; a young pilot who Lucy takes to have been Evie’s lover. She contacts the housekeeper of the home where Evelyn spent her last years, now owned by one of her grandsons, Michael Marsten, and begins her research whilst looking through her belongings, left at Rosebank Cottage where she lived.
The plot is split between Lucy’s story and Evelyn’s. Evie, as she is known, works on her parents’ farm to help out whilst her brother, an RAF pilot, is flying in the Battle, conveniently posted at Westhampnett, the airfield nearest their home. In her spare time, she sketches and paints, and many of her works are successfully sold with the help of their neighbour and family friend, Eddie Marsten, with whom Evie has something of a dalliance, and who has designs on marrying her.
Lucy begins to uncover a number of family secrets, and is eventually threatened herself, not just by Michael’s angry and violent cousin, Christopher, but from a ghostly presence which follows the painting which Lucy owns. There is more than one spirit around though; one is the malevolent presence intent on stopping Lucy’s work, but the other is a more benign figure which Lucy discovers to be Evie’s brother, Ralph, who was killed in action.
Evie meets a young pilot, Tony, and the two fall quickly in love, and Eddie’s jealousy soars, to the point where he attempts to arrange Tony’s death. Another pilot is killed on a test flight which Tony was supposed to be carrying out, and Eddie tells Evie that is was him; she is distraught but agrees to marry Eddie. Their marriage is an unhappy one; Eddie is unfaithful and violent, even more so when he discovers that Evie had already been two months pregnant with Tony’s child at the time of their marriage, and she married him partly for a father for her son so that he would not be born out of wedlock.
The two stories become intertwined and I was hooked from the beginning to the end. The final showdown was fairly expected, but still surprising, with the addition of one notable character; the now ninety-five year old Tony.
I’m a little bit conflicted about the ghosts. On the one hand, I think it lent even more colour to a brilliant story, but I do think the story could have functioned just as well without the ghosts being involved; Evie’s tale carries itself and the presence of her and the characters of her time in the present-day characters’ minds would have been enough to bring them to life in the main plot without their actual spirits hanging around.
Adding ghosts into historical fiction has the potential to ruin a good book and make it silly and unrealistic, but thankfully this didn’t happen at all. Despite the fact that the ghosts could have been easily written out, they lent a more spiritual note to the book as well as moments worthy of a horror story! It also allowed for the introduction of great characters like Huw and Maggie, the vicar and his wife who help Lucy try and communicate with, and then get rid of, the ghostly presence in her home.
Lucy is a very sympathetic character; I assume her to be in her thirties or forties although I don’t think her age is ever mentioned. Her assistant at the art gallery she owns, Robin, and his partner Phil, are a steady presence for Lucy during the traumatic aftermath of her husband’s death and the subsequent stress which begins once she starts her work. Erskine creates a whole host of characters, each one of them memorable and vividly painted. (Excuse the pun…) Michael Marsten, Evie’s grandson, despite being initially somewhat disagreeable, warms to Lucy as she continues her research into his grandmother’s life, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Charlotte. The housekeeper, Dolly, grows to like Lucy as well, and is a great help in her research, although initially she is quite over-protective of Evie’s memory.
Evie herself and the characters in her time are just as real as the characters in the modern day, and I was keen to find out what happened to all of them. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone; I think there’s at least something in it which would appeal to everyone and I can’t sing its praises highly enough!