It is 1920 and the Great War ended two years ago. Seventeen-year-old Lily Pears had done her best to ignore it. She is a chorus girl with a beautiful voice, who performs under the stage name Lily Valance. Her widowed mother has poured all her dreams into her daughter. Helen Pears runs a shop on Highland Road, a working class area of Portsmouth and despite struggling with a drunken husband and later as a widow, Helen has scrimped and saved to ensure that Lily is well prepared for a singing career. There is a strong mutual bond between mother and daughter with Helen chaperoning Lily everywhere.
Stephen Winters, like so many men who survived, has brought the war home with him, reliving the worst in his dreams and stuttering under pressure. A handsome decorated war hero, he now works in his father’s legal practice. His wealthy family is so deeply mourning for his elder brother who died early in the war that they seem to experience no relief that Stephen has survived.
Lily is on the brink of success as a soloist when Stephen meets her. He sees in her someone pure and unspoiled by the War – ‘She looks like there had never been a war at all’ – and decides he must have her, that somehow with Lily beside him he will able to push the war away. Helen, acknowledging the benefits of such a marriage for a young woman in Lily’s position, believes Lily can do better by pursuing her career. When Helen dies unexpectedly of the Spanish flu, Lily is stunned by grief. Stephen is at her side, and it seems he is the only one she can turn to. He quickly marries her and Lily is forced to confront Stephen’s unacknowledged demons and the rigid rules that govern the lives of the moneyed classes while trying to cling to her dreams.
Fallen Skies is well-written and reads easily but it is a grim tale. It is written with a shifting point of view within many of the scenes allowing the reader to glimpse the thoughts and reactions of quite a number of the characters. This is done skillfully and fluidly and seems to be a characteristic of Gregory’s style. This shifting point of view was quite common in the past with many noted writers such as James Joyce and William Faulkner using it; many of Jean Plaidy’s historical novels are also written in this way. Most writing advice these days describes it as ‘head hopping’ and considers it the unpardonable sin but it works well in the hands of a master and I suspect most readers swept along by the story would not notice.
This is a compelling book that I could not get out of my mind when I was not reading it. It was so gripping that I could not sit reading the last pages but finished the book pacing the floor as I read (alternatively, it might be that I get a little too involved in my reading). Fallen Skies is not a pleasant read. While Lily is a likeable and engaging character with a surprising resilience, Stephen is utterly vile. His distasteful attitudes to women are apparent within the first few pages. I could find not an ounce of sympathy for him. For me, the misery of his upbringing and his wartime experiences do nothing to excuse his actions. No doubt I am bringing my modern sensibilities to bear but I doubt there would have been many contemporary women who would have had much sympathy either.
This novel touches on so many things and paints a grim picture of the period from the cold-hearted child rearing practices of the British upper classes to the barely comprehensible horrors of the First World War and the ineptitude of those British commanders sitting safe behind the lines issuing ill-conceived orders that resulted in the pointless deaths of thousands of men. The powerlessness of women in this period is highlighted, especially in marriage, including even those who were wealthy and well-connected. The scars both seen and unseen carried home by the returning soldiers is well portrayed but, in my case, did not evoke the sympathy they deserved mainly because Stephen Winters was established as such a sociopath by the time I understood the depth of his trauma. There is much to think about in the aftermath of reading Fallen Skies.
I would not describe myself as Philippa Gregory fan, having no particular liking for her Tudor novels with the exception of The Boleyn Inheritance; I did enjoy her Tradescant novels. After reading Fallen Skies I have nothing but admiration for her skill and the power of her story-telling and can now understand the devotion of so many of her readers.
Another review here.