Friday, 6 April 2018

BOOKCLUB: The Chalky Sea by Clare Flynn


In July 1940, Gwen Collingwood drops her husband at the railway station, knowing she may never see him again. Two days later her humdrum world is torn apart when the sleepy English seaside town where she lives is subjected to the first of many heavy bombing attacks.

In Ontario, Canada, Jim Armstrong is debating whether to volunteer. His decision becomes clear when he uncovers the secret his fiancée has been keeping from him. A few weeks later he is on a ship bound for England.

Gwen is forced to confront the truth she has concealed about her past and her own feelings. Jim battles with a bewildering and hostile world far removed from the cosy life of his Canadian farm. War brings horror and loss to each of them – can it also bring change and salvation?


This month Triskele colleagues, Gillian Hamer (GH) and Jill Marsh (JJ) discuss our March book of the month - The Chalky Sea by Clare Flynn. Read Gillian's review of the book here.

 
Much of the novel switches back and forth between two separate POV - from Canada/ Aldershot (Jim's story) and the Eastbourne thread (Gwen's story). How did this work for you?

(GH) I found the alternating chapters really easy to follow and the author did well to give each character their own style and voice. I felt it was a given that the two threads would eventually come together, and it was one reason I found myself hooked, waiting for that to happen. I liked how these two characters were literally worlds apart and yet ultimately shared so many similarities. It was very well plotted and that made the story effortless to read.

(JJ) Agreed. Jim's story was such a world away from Gwen's that you are curious to see what will happen when their worlds collide. One thing I found interesting is that when they meet, neither is the person we knew at the outset. War has changed them both. Thus we meet two new formed individuals with personal pain and and history, adapting to a new environment.

Both of the lead characters (Jim and Gwen) had hidden secrets and baggage they carried with them - did you enjoy how this helped develop them into much more layered characters?

(GH) I think it's wonderful when you get to know a really complex character, but are also shown enough of the back story that you understand them. We saw how Jim's secular world was shattered and with Gwen, although we didn't witness the trauma of her past, we knew through her interaction with her husband, Roger, that she was carrying the weight of many issues. The repercussions of both incidents played through over and again with both characters throughout the book and made them much more believable and rounded.

(JJ) The circumstances of war force characters to change and drop much of their cultural conditioning. That can be cruel and unfair, but with these people, adversity offers opportunity. This goes for the entire cast, who adapt to love, loss and moments of tenderness under bombardment. Jim has a bruised innocence whereas Gwen's stoicism is classic stiff upper lip. The almost incredible meeting of wounded optimists is deeply touching.

Pauline was an interesting character and cleverly thought out by the author as a way of contrasting Gwen's personality. What did you think about their relationship?

(JJ) She could have so easily been a 'device' but in these hands, she comes alive. Her gutsy and brave attitude to her circumstances gave her daughters something to hold on to. Her interaction with Gwen reminded me of Sarah Waters's book, The Paying Guests. The typically distant classes are housed under one roof and learn understanding from each other. Attitudes to children, to sex and to manners become more about practicality than 'what the neighbours think'.


(GH) Pauline was a delight, a real breath of fresh air, who despite her own tragedy, blew in through Gwen's life and completely changed her perspective of everything - love, life, loss and finally Pauline learnt Gwen acceptance. Their friendship was a real joy and opened Gwen up to become the woman we see at the end of the book. It was a friendship based on mutual need, but although Gwen seemed to give more to Pauline in terms of material help, it was Pauline's spirit and generosity that was the biggest gift.

I thought Jim was a really strong character, some of his internal thoughts were very in depth - one line I highlighted - "they had stolen his future and tainted his past, but the present would be his alone." What moment did you feel he had finally shaken off his past and started to live?

(GH)  I think his acknowledgement of his feelings for Gwen and yet his understanding that he could not plan a future with her showed that he was finally coming to understand not everything in life was quite so black and white. His relationship with his brother, Walt, even while over in the U.K. had stopped him moving on, but at the end of the book he seemed to have accepted that sometimes you had to do what was the right thing at the time.

(JJ) For me, Jim is still on that journey, processing everything he's experienced. He's still in the oven, not yet baked. Old-fashioned honour is one thing, but flying across the ocean to fight a war is another. At the heart of this guy is a very brave person carrying a wound. He'll carry a lot more by the end of this novel and the way he deals with them make him the person he is. He hasn't yet shaken off his past but he can certainly see a future.

What were the main changes you saw in Gwen's personality and how did the author show this?

(GH) Oh, there was so many changes in Gwen! When she acknowledged that while she hated the fighting, she actually had enjoyed the person she had become in the war was a real eye opener for her. Finally, after mundane years where suicide had often been in her mind, she had a purpose and that drove her finally let go and live. Remembering her abject horror on seeing Pauline kissing one of the Canadian soldiers, you would hardly believe where she allowed her own feelings to take her a short time later. I can imagine WWII reshaped many women like Gwen and this felt totally real to me.

(JJ) Sex. Gwen's relationship with Roger was practical and unsatisfactory in every sense. When she begins to see other women enjoy and take pleasure from sex, it shocks and surprises her. This rang true as so many of my grandparents' generation 'lay back and thought of England'. Her gradual awakening to sex as mutual satisfaction and in combination with that, a consciousness of her own power, comes as an incredible liberation. Sex and sexuality have changed her forever.

The use of location is a main focus for Triskele Books, how did the authors descriptions of war ravaged Eastbourne work for you?

(GH)  I really enjoyed it and thought the author did a superb job of bringing the location to life. It's clear it's an area the author knows well, and it must have been fascinating trying to make as many details as accurate as possible. I thought some of the best parts were the times when the bombs weren't dropping and life could begin to get back to normal, and people could take strolls along the promenade and children could play in the parks. The setting of the house on the hill giving views across the town and across the ocean - a real vantage point - was a clever device.

(JJ) All the locations felt vibrant, not just Eastbourne. The impact the war had on daily life is everywhere, from rationing to propaganda, and the reminder of Eastbourne's natural beauty brings the destruction into sharp relief. Flynn seems to be a sensory writer, giving the reader a fuller picture of the sights, sounds, smells, feelings and tastes of a world in a state of flux.

Research is a minefield in the genre of historical fiction, how do you feel the author handled it here?

(JJ) Impressively well. Not only the detail of wartime facts and figures, but period detail like manners and behaviour, the increased sense of social position and even the fashions of the day appeared accurate and plausible. So much so that combined with the sensory touches, it was like watching a BBC period drama - everything fitted perfectly.

(GH)  As mentioned above, it must have taken a lot of hard work to get this story to flow so effortlessly. The details of the battles, planes, the dates and times of bombing and the routines in the army barracks at Aldershot all felt completely believable to me. There were no massive dumps of information that slowed the pace of the story, it was all cleverly woven into the narrative so it became part of the book.

What were your feelings at the end of the book towards Jim and Gwen?

(GH)  My predominant feeling was one of hope. I hope they both get the happiness they deserve in peace time. But then this is fiction, and it wouldn't make much of a story if they all did get to live happy ever after!

(JJ) My prevailing feeling was one of curiosity. By the end, we feel we know what could happen next, but as Gilly says, stories never run smoothly. I want to see what they do with the gifts and knowledge they have gained in The Chalky Sea and how it will affect their futures.

'The Canadians' series continues with The Alien Corn - will you read it and what are your hopes for the characters in the next book?

(GH) Yes, definitely. I'm just interested to see where the story goes next. If Jim returns home to his farm and how he'll handle the past. And if Gwen can finally accept Roger as a proper husband. The war has changed them as people so it will be really interesting to see how they adapt.

(JJ) Of course I'll read it. I know Jim will do the right thing by Joan, but is it the right thing for both of them? And what of Gwen now she's sexually awoken? Her marriage is going to change for sure. And will this be a fondly remembered wartime romance or something neither of them can get over?





2 comments:

  1. I am thrilled you enjoyed the book so much and that it provoked such an excellent discussion. You have really "got" what I was trying to do with the book. Thank you – and I hope you'll enjoy The Alien Corn!

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  2. What a brilliant discussion with such accurate descriptions of the well-drawn characters in The Chalky Sea, a novel I really enjoyed.
    Having now also read The Alien Corn, I can only say that you won't be disappointed. A lovely read. Clare Flynn is such a talented author.

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