Elinor and Toby are brother and sister, they have an incredibly close bond with Elinor being the youngest and Toby the adored older brother. Early on we encounter a ‘situation’ between these two that affects the rest of their lives, and has a lasting impression throughout the book. Adulthood sees Toby starting training as a doctor and Elinor at art school. Neither are unscathed and both become unlikeable – but fascinating – adult characters.
Jumping to the outbreak of World War I, Toby volunteers and becomes a fearless medic leading his men into more and more dangerous situations, seemingly with little regard for his life. Elinor learns that he is missing, presumed dead, and this starts her obsession with finding out what happened. Her friend Kit from art school, who was in Toby’s regiment and has come home suffering dreadful facial scarring, seems knows what happened but refuses to tell Elinor. Why? The famous Queen Mary hospital that treated these returned soldiers for their horrendous facial trauma becomes a macabre backdrop from which the story now unfolds.
What makes this book so compelling are the main flawed characters, the descriptions of hospital and life for the men having returned with scars both physical and mental, and an increasing sense of intrigue and angst around Toby’s probable death. Stories of the First World War are always harrowing and this book is no different. It’s not a light holiday read, but it is enthralling and incredibly well written.