I was delighted when I saw this offering on NetGalley – and even more delighted when I was approved to read it. I enjoy McDonald’s writing and was particularly impressed with his lunar duology – read my review of Luna: New Moon here.
Struggling second-hand book dealer, Emmet, is trying to survive in the increasingly difficult financial climate – and then comes across a small poetry collection called Time Was which includes a love letter from Tom to Ben, set in WWII. It sets him out on an astonishing search to discover who Tom and Ben are – a search that takes him to a tucked-away corner of England where odd stories abound about the seas catching fire…
And no… You won’t find that blurb anywhere else, as I wrote it myself. I feel the official version is highly misleading and yet somehow also manages to reveal some of the major plot points. I’m very glad I didn’t read it before I picked up the book, because I would have approached it expecting something completely different.
The main protagonist is gripped by the need to track down the fate of the two young men caught up in WWII and more or less abandons his everyday life to do it. In contrast to the lyrical, slightly highflown prose produced by Tom when in his viewpoint, Emmet is far more down-to-earth with a dry, sarky humour that I thoroughly enjoyed and stopped this turning into a treacly read. In fact, Emmett isn’t a particularly likeable character – and that was okay, too.
Tom and Ben were the people in the story that snagged my sympathy and attention – and I think that is exactly how I was meant to feel, in effect, shadowing the main protagonist in his attempts to find out more about these two people. But history and historical research is inherently messy – it never delivers exactly what you want, in the way that you want it. And there are two major surprises at the end of this bittersweet story that summed up that premise.
Overall, I think this is a haunting, really well written novella with a misleading blurb that isn’t doing it any favours whatsoever. Take my advice – skip the blurb and instead pick up this short story without any prior expectation and let the plot unfold around you.