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.