We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet: Ties that bind

Cover image I’d not come across Frances Liardet before. We Must Be Brave is her second novel but her first, The Game, published back in 1994, seems to have slipped out of print. Set in a small Hampshire village, her new book opens in 1940 with the discovery of a child fast asleep at the back of a coach filled with frightened women fleeing the bombing of Southampton.

Ellen is the wife of Selwyn, the local flour mill owner. Theirs is a marriage in which there will be no children and Ellen is happy with that. When she discovers five-year-old Pamela her first impulse is to find the girl’s mother, calling out to the women to help her but it seems that the child is alone. Selwyn sets about tracking down Pamela’s family but much to Ellen’s surprise she finds herself warming to this adventurous, heart-broken child who alternately clings to her then pushes her away. Ellen understands how it feels to lose everything. When her father left in disgrace, her family was forced to accept charity – no welfare system to catch their fall – her genteel mother unable to grasp their changed circumstances. Her brother went to sea and when their mother died, fourteen-year-old Ellen was left to fend for herself. Fiercely determined, she found a job away from the kindness of Upton and the villagers who helped where they could, returning when she and Selwyn were married. Ellen forms a bright bond of love with Pamela until, three years after she arrived, the child is finally claimed. Years later, another lost little girl comes into into Ellen’s life.

When Liardet’s novel arrived my heart sank a little. It’s a doorstopper, prompting expectations of the usual bagginess and urge for a blue pencil to wield. However, like The Immortalists, one of last year’s favourites, its size is justified. Liardet unfolds her story from Ellen’s perspective, interweaving the wartime thread with her early life then following it through to its resolution many years later. Her narrative is infused with a strong sense of place and peopled with rounded and engaging characters – Pamela is particularly well drawn, her plight sensitively and perceptively portrayed – and she slips in a very pleasing reveal towards the end. It would have been easy to descend into schmaltziness with this kind of story but Liardet steers well clear of that while still conveying its poignancy. The whole thing works beautifully. Nothing much in the way of literary fireworks, just good old-fashioned storytelling. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait over twenty years for Liardet’s third novel.

16 thoughts on “We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet: Ties that bind”

  1. I’ll second Cafe Society’s comments about good old-fashioned storytelling being an underrated thing in many novels these days. It’s one the aspects I love about older fiction written in the 1930s and ’40s. This does sound very good indeed – an engaging and absorbing story, beautifully told.

    1. Yes, it’s a shame isn’t it. There’s a great skill in drawing readers into a story in the way Liardet manages to do here. I particularly admired the way she avoided the sentimental, all too easily descended into with this fiction.

  2. This does sound good – I also find doorstoppers off-putting but as this justifies its size I’m very tempted, especially at the promise of good storytelling. The cover is gorgeous too.

  3. This sounds satisfying on every level. How did you end up wanting to read it when you weren’t even aware of its length? Were you simply curious based on your enjoyment of her other book?

    1. I first spotted it on Twitter and was then sent a copy. I haven’t read her first novel but did a little research on her before writing the review. Such a long time between the two!

      1. I was listening to an interview today with a musician who was asked about whether she felt pressured to produce new work more often (she’d left three years between “albums”) given the pressure to produce content these days. Nothing like the gap that some novelists experience!

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