Author: Sarah Mitchell
Published: August 2018 by Bookouture
Category: Contemporary, Historical, Fiction, Dual Timeline, Book Review
Norfolk, 1940: Sylvia’s husband Howard has gone off to war, and she is struggling to raise her two children alone. Her only solace is her beach hut in Wells-Next-The-Sea, and her friendship with Connie, a woman she meets on the beach. The two women form a bond that will last a lifetime, and Sylvia tells Connie something that no-one else knows: about a secret lover… and a child.
Canada, present day: When Martha’s beloved father dies, he leaves her two things: a mysterious stash of letters to an English woman called ‘Catkins’ and directions to a beach hut in the English seaside town of Wells. Martha is at a painful crossroads in her own life, and seizes this chance for a trip to England – to discover more about her family’s past, and the identity of her father’s secret correspondent.
The Lost Letters is a dual timeline story, with alternating sections switching between the present and the past just prior to, and during the Second World War. Martha Rodwell is on a quest to discover why her father, who had been writing his memoirs before his sudden death a month ago, had been about to take a trip to England. She and her sister Elizabeth discovered he had booked a hotel and rented a beach hut in Wells-next-the-Sea for the whole month of May.
Her father’s death hit Martha hard and she was having trouble dealing with the emotional fallout. He had been evacuated to Canada during WWII but never wanted to talk about it. So Martha is on a plane bound for England to try and find out why the first twenty years of her father’s life was missing from his notes, what was drawing him to a small coastal town in Norfolk….and who was Catkins? Apart from all that it’s also an opportunity for Martha to visit her daughter who is studying in London and hopefully repair a seemingly fractured relationship.
He was found on the porch, surrounded by sheets of writing paper skimming over the lawn and skewered to the rose bushes. Six months previously he had stepped down from the municipal council to write his memoirs. Elizabeth, her sister, had offered to proof read them but she had told Martha that he refused point-blank to let her see them.
’Not until they’re finished,’ he said, And then he mentioned, casually, as if it were of no import at all, that in order to finish them he would need to go back to England.
Back in time to 1939, we meet Sylvie who is married to Howard with two children, Esther and Lewis. When her aunt dies, Sylvie is surprised to learn she has been left a beach hut in Wells where she was brought up and her parents still live. She meets Connie and her little brother, Charlie at the beach and they become firm friends. Their lives become entwined and the results of their lifelong friendship echoes down through the years.
I enjoyed the alternating storyline, although it’s a little slow to begin with. Martha’s story seemed to take a while to get going but once it did I became more invested in the unfolding tale, as secrets are uncovered and the mystery begins to unravel, not without several realistic twists. Britain during the war is described evocatively, the devastation and destruction, and the evacuation of children. What a terrible decision to have to make, I can’t even imagine.
Characters are believable and well crafted. I liked Martha, Sylvie and Connie very much, their determination and courage stood out. A poignant story of family secrets and the bond of friendship and love, with a surprising conclusion that tied everything up nicely. The Lost Letters is an accomplished debut.
I chose to read and review The Lost Letters for Rosie Amber’s book review team, based on a digital copy from the publisher.
About the Author
THE LOST LETTERS in my first novel, inspired by a visit to Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, where there is a row of iconic beach huts. Some of them looked very old to me, and it made me wonder for how many generations they might have been in the same family and handed down over the years…
I didn’t become a writer until I was in my forties. I studied law and after that practised as a barrister in London for nearly 20 years. For a long while I wanted to write a novel – inspired by my mother who used to write children’s stories for a radio programme called ‘Listen with Mother’ – but it took me a long while to take the plunge and actually make the dream happen. As well as the beach huts, THE LOST LETTERS draws on the decision my grandparents almost made to evacuate my mother to Canada at the start of the Second World War. So much has changed since then, and yet so much – the bonds within a family – are the same. I wanted to explore that in my writing.
I now live back in Norfolk, where I grew up, with my husband and three almost-grown-up children. Norfolk is an extraordinary county and I feel incredibly lucky to live here. I hope THE LOST LETTERS captures a little bit of the beauty of Norfolk, as well as the horror and hardship of war.