Author: Caroline Beecham
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Copy: Courtesy of the Publisher
I read Maggie’s Kitchen when it released and quite enjoyed it so when I discovered the impending release of Eleanor’s Secret I thought it would be a great fit for the book club.
Eleanor’s Secret is a stand alone novel set across generations, told during WWII and in 2010. Maggie’s Kitchen was also a WWII story that centred on the British Restaurants that were opened during the war to feed the community. Eleanor’s Secret touches on the restaurants in that part of Eleanor’s job description is helping to organise the art that will hang in the restaurants. I kept my eyes open for a mention of Maggie and her restaurant. The two stories aren’t connected but this added an extra layer of interest for me.
I learned a lot of interesting facts that I never would have learned about the second world war from this novel. The story is fictional but Beecham has done her research to make sure it has an authentic atmosphere and you are left believing that it could have happened.
Women stepped up and started doing a lot more in times of war because they had to, there were many jobs that would have been left vacant when the men went off to war if they hadn’t. That still didn’t give them equality and there were still roles women had to fight to even be considered for.
It was one of these roles that Eleanor coveted, she wanted to be a war artist. Eleanor was a talented artist, recent art graduate and she worked in the art industry but couldn’t get herself included in the programs. She worked for the Ministry of Food helping to organise the art in the British Restaurants and later also held a position with the Ministry of Information where she worked with war artists but still couldn’t take that leap into becoming a war artist, she was told she was needed in the positions she held and they were still contributing to the war effort.
In the course of her duties she met fellow artist Jack Valante, and was soon separated from him by his overseas posting.
Kathryn is Eleanor’s grand-daughter, living in Melbourne with her husband and son, and when she is asked to return a painting to Eleanor in England she can’t help but comply. Her marriage is in trouble but it isn’t often her aging grandmother asks for anything so she doesn’t feel that she can refuse the request.
Eleanor has always been quite a private person which causes all of the family to be concerned about the sudden need for this painting and subsequent search for it’s artist. There is a mystery here that is slow to unfold and fascinating to follow. I had questions, I had theories, and I was left content with the way it all came together. I think there are still some questions that remain unanswered but for the most part it all came together beautifully.
The use of dual timelines to slowly share clues to the mystery was well executed and the two timelines rolled on to their point of total disclosure at a steady pace that kept me interested start to finish. Bringing Kathryn’s son into the unfolding mystery via skype was a heart-warming touch.
1942 Eleanor is a strong-willed and dedicated young woman, determined to do the best she can in her positions with both the Ministry of Food and the Ministry of Information, even when it means she struggles to find the time to paint. We learn a little about the struggles faced by war artists with rationing in full force and supplies hard to come by, yet still requiring supplies to paint but not sure what happens when the paint runs out. We get to know Eleanor, her compassion and her dedication well throughout the war time storyline and there’re seems to be some glaringly large differences between 1942 Eleanor and 2010 Eleanor which you just have to keep reading to try and discover the answers to.
Beecham shines a spotlight on a lesser known aspect of London through WWII and I found it fascinating to learn about war artists and the War Artist Advisory Committee, that seems to have been created simply to help keep a generation of artists out of the front line even if they still headed to warzones.
I found Eleanor’s Secret to be an interesting story, and not that long ago I would have said that wartime stories weren’t really my thing. The pacing was steady but a little on the slow side but I never found it to get tedious. It was quite an easy read and one that I would definitely recommend, a side of wartime London that I had certainly been unaware of, and it was interesting reading.
Caroline Beecham is becoming an author to look out for and I will be interested to see what she has up her sleeve next.
Eleanor’s Secret is book #23 for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2018.