Clare Mackintosh calls Sarah Franklin’s debut novel, Shelter, ‘life-affirming and compelling’, and the Irish Times heralds it ‘tender, moving… [and with] an unforgettable heroine’. Historical author Essie Fox writes that the novel ‘shows how outsiders in a time of war seek to rebuild their lives again’. Shelter, which was first published in 2017, was also chosen as a book of the month on Netgalley, and has been well-received by a slew of reviewers. I am disappointed then, with all of these positive reviews, my adoration of historical fiction, and the promise of so many elements which I ordinarily enjoy that I failed to enjoy the novel.
Set in rural Gloucestershire in Spring 1944, Shelter follows two protagonists, Connie Granger and Seppe. Connie has joined the Women’s Timber Corps, an organisation which I knew nothing about before beginning the novel. Connie hopes that her new job as a lumberjill ‘will give her a place of safety, and a place to protect the secret she carries.’ Seppe, on the other hand, comes from a markedly different background. He is an Italian prisoner of war, who has been transported to the Forest of Dean. He is, unsurprisingly, haunted by his wartime experiences, ‘but is surprised to find a certain liberty in his new surroundings’.
Part of Connie’s decision to move to a new area in such a tumultuous time in British history is that she yearned to escape the devastation wreaked on her home city, Coventry, much of which was destroyed in bombing attacks. When she arrives in the Forest of Dean, expecting to find peace, she is surprised: ‘The place gave her the willies, always something creaking or scratching. Whoever thought the countryside was still and calm hadn’t spent any time in it.’
When we first meet Seppe, he is being transported, along with a group of other soldiers, to the forest: ‘Seppe had been the last one on to the truck, shoved aside by the rest of them as usual. From here at the back of the truck he had a good view of the exhaust pipe. He’d been staring at it for hours, fogged into stupidity, assuming the nausea he felt was merely the same nausea that had accompanied him through the months in Africa, intensifying cruelly each time he’d shouldered his weapon. But overlaying the nausea now, overlaying, too, the anxiety of what might lie ahead, was dishonourable relief that they were truly done with fighting. Nobody was sending him back out there into those sheets of dust, that suffocating cacophony of shouts and weapon fire. It made him a bad patriot, but he’d been a bad patriot for a long time.’
The prologue of Shelter opens with Connie attending a dance with fellow lumberjill, Hetty. The first chapter then flits back to the day of her arrival in the forest. Here, ‘Connie stepped off the train and quietly joined the throng of muttering girls as they trailed off the platform towards the station entrance. This wasn’t like any station she’d seen before, more like a rundown bus shelter, really. There was none of the bustle you’d see at Coventry station of an evening, even with the war on. It gave her the creeps, but she’d keep her opinions to herself for once. She needed to behave, make a good impression; this next billet mattered like none before.’
As demonstrated in the given examples, Franklin’s prose is written in a chatty style, particularly with regard to those chapters which follow Connie. Every other chapter, which takes Seppe as its focus, is a little more serious in tone. His state of mind and fragility are hinted at throughout. I found him a far more believable character than I did Connie, and was intrigued to learn more about him.
Shelter is rather slow in terms of its pace, and I found the prose a little repetitive. Whilst Franklin sets the historical period well, I found the narrative both distanced from its characters, and rather uneven in its tone and style. There is a sense of impersonality which suffuses the text, and after a while, I found myself not caring whatsoever about what was going to happen to either main character. The secondary characters are shadowy and typecast, and even elements of the protagonists – particularly I found it very difficult to engage with it, and the story – whilst it sounded right up my street – did not pull me in.