When the past isn’t in the past.
First Published: 30th June 2014
Date Reviewed: 22nd October 2014
Rhoda finds her married life difficult and always has. Neither she nor Peter are particularly close, and when she discovers he’s been meeting another woman she decides to find out about his supposed affair. Rhoda herself is hiding something from Peter, an event that happened whilst he was in a prisoner of war camp, and just as Rhoda has never spoken of her time, neither has Peter spoken of war.
Past Encounters is an excellent novel that looks at the way secrets, events in the past, continue to affect the way the characters treat each other. The book is a multi-plot novel, of sorts, moving between two decades for the two main characters and including a brief sojourn into the life of another.
In writing Past Encounters, Blake has delved into WWII in a way that is different to many other writers. It may not neccersarily ‘read’ different – others have written about the war camps as have films – but there is a difference nonetheless.
As said, the majority of the book switches between Rhoda and Peter – Rhoda in the 1940s and 1950s, and Peter almost exclusively in the 1940s. Rhoda’s chapters are written in the first person, Peter’s in the third, and perhaps in part because of this, both points of view are equally compelling. In Rhoda’s case you are reading about her search for the truth and the event that changed her, in Peter’s you are finding out about war and why he may not have wanted to speak of it. What’s interesting here is that Blake spends much time telling you all of this yet shows at the end that it’s obviously not black and white. There is a hint – though only a hint – of unreliability, or, rather, the fact that it’s best to remember there are two sides to every story.
The characters aren’t particularly special; apart, perhaps, from Peter’s trials in war, you’re likely not going to remember them for themselves, however this is a point worth considering. It is often more what Rhoda and Peter represent, how they remind you to look at your own life from different perspectives, that is most important. They are two ordinary people living lives in ordinary situations (but for the war), and this makes the book shine.
Blake doesn’t hold back on her descriptions of war. She doesn’t describe everything in gory detail, but her word choice, her style of writing, says so much. You get the facts and you get the raw feelings. And sometimes, because she includes the happier moments and always reminds you of the thoughts of the regular people, even the soldiers, it is all the more compelling. Blake repeats details and talks of the mundane because that was the reality of the situation, and it keeps you reading. Never should you forget how war affected the other side and how most simply wanted to live their lives.
Yet this doesn’t mean that the book falls prey to that known situation wherein a reader prefers one plotline to another, as often occurs when a book switches back and forth. Yes, you may prefer one or the other, but you’ll likely enjoy reading both nonetheless and be happy to catch up. In Rhoda’s story there is longing, there is the change in character that is of course less ‘important’ than Peter’s changes but still important, and there is also the foray into film.
The book’s title owes a lot to the film, Brief Encounter, and it is the production of it that features in the story. The title sports many references therein – the literal past, the brief encounter during Brief Encounter and the way the filming affects Rhoda, the way words and small arguments can cause major changes. The film doesn’t take up a lot of the time, but it’s enough to give you a fair background of it, the working methods during war, the differences between people that remained during war, and so on. And then there is the way the filming clashes with Peter’s internment which may not speak for everyone’s experience but does show how people might have coped in such a situation.
There is that third narration, but it can’t really be discussed without spoiling the story, suffice to say it serves to show how chances taken at the right or wrong moment can have a major affect on everything else.
The sole element that stops the book taking the top spot is the text. There are batches of errors – proofreading and copy editing problems. The story and the book in general is so good it’s very possible to overlook the errors, but in terms of objectivity and the whole, it must be taken into account.
Past Encounters is masterful. It is compelling, and whilst diligently keeping to the specific topics at hand, it never becomes boring or falls into the trap of filler content. It is epic without requiring lots of action and changes, an epic about war without battles.
This book is wonderful.
I received this book for review from the author for Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.
December 4, 2014, 6:59 pm
Great review, I am so glad that you enjoyed Past Encounters! Thank you for hosting Davina Blake’s tour!
HF Virtual Book Tours