Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Chalkhill Blue by Richard Masefield - #review

Chalkhill Blue is an award-winning novel of the First World War, and of so much else besides. A grand romance in the English narrative tradition, it spans more than two decades, from the Edwardian heyday through the cataclysm of the ‘war to end wars’ to the uncertain new world of the 1920s. As a study of deception and self-deception, it traces the lives of two women who have dared to flout the rules of their society, and those of the men who love them; the double strands of a remarkable love story which concludes with a heart-stopping double-twist that makes it literally unforgettable. But far more than a romance, this is also a descriptive novel of tremendous scope, transporting the reader from the parched drove-trails of Queensland to the horse-drawn congestion of Edwardian London; from the snow-capped cordilleras of the Andes to a truly astonishing underground city deep in the chalk of Artois. The timeless downland landscapes of Sussex and the little blue butterfly that haunts them are horrifyingly contrasted with the man-made desolation of their notorious counterparts across the Channel at Arras and on the Somme. Based on a true story, Chalkhill Blue is compulsory reading for anyone with a taste for the authentic and the unusual.



Masefield is a master at introducing us to determined ladies of literature - and in Chalkhill blue we get a double dose in Meriel (Meri) and Beatrice (Simmie).

Meri is quite the world traveler, although not in the ultra wealthy 'world tour' sort of way.  We first meet her in Queensland, relatively free as a young woman.  Her father is a mining engineer and goes where the work takes him.  The work went next o England; Meri's father followed and as the father, so went the family.  The tedium of weeks at sea was relieved only by the horror of the various sicknesses that surfaced during the voyage.

Before long, Papa decides his fortune can be made larger by taking a job in the Andes mountains of South America.  Meri's 'Mater' was very against going, but whither her husband went, so did she and by extension, the family.  This time there was not only a long ocean voyage, but this time long rail trips and an extended overland jaunt up into the mountains.

Meri had already sought (and received) Ned's attentions back in England.  When Simmie gives her ticket to South America to Ned so he can visit Meri's family instead of her, Ned and Meri's couple status is just about set in stone.

And yet, the relationship could so easily  have not come into existence at all.  Meri met Ned in her grandmother's old London house.  Gran had bequeathed the residence to a long-time companion (strictly professional) - Simmie.  Simmie had happened to have a brief, but scorching, liaison with Meri's father.  In later years, she takes in college students needing rooms in order to make more money.  One of the students is Ned.  Meri happens upon Ned in the back yard of the house and there and then decides that this is 'the one' for her, without consideration as to how close the renter and the landlady had become.

If there was one character flaw in Meri, it was her staunch belief that 'everyone is entitled to my opinion'.  Of course, some might view that as determination and focus.  She didn't even waver when Ned was declared 'missing, presumed dead' in WWI - and kept insisting that he was still alive.  She even toured military hospitals and battlefields in France, looking for Ned and/or information about him.  Meri had been holding out hope, when everyone around her had resigned themselves to the fact that Ned was not returning - that is, until she returned from France.  Then she dealt with it by ... not dealing with it.  Whatever I might have thought about her before, it was hard to watch Meri lose touch with reality like that.

Through it all, Simmie was there for her.  From Ned volunteering for service, to returning for a second tour, to the drowning of one son and near-drowning of another ... Simmie was there for all of it.

Chalkhill Blue was definitely one of my two favorite books of this quartet, which also includes White Cross, Brimstone and Painted Lady.  (Reviews for the latter two titles will be up within a week.)

I am reminded while reading of a British comedy (I know, but let me explain...)  I don't remember the title, but a man with a life in the present finds some sort of time 'portal' and can cross into WWII London, where he falls in love with another woman and has a second life in that time.  By immersing myself in the pages of Chalkhill Blue, I was transported back in time to WWII England.  When I left off reading for whatever reason, I was just as quickly transported back to the present.  And I looked forward to my next visit to the past.  



Richard Masefield comes from a family of writers – John Masefield was his cousin – and with a love of animals and the outdoors he decided at a young age that he would farm and write, if necessary both at once.

It took years of hard work before Richard could realise his dream, and in fact his first published novel was written while milking a herd of Friesian cows. He still lives on his farm in Sussex with his wife Lee and together they spend as much time as possible with their large family of children and grandchildren.

You can visit Richard’s website at


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(I received a copy of this book from the author and publishers via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours in exchange for my honest review.)

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