Rhoda and Peter are drifting apart. Engaged before Peter enlisted in army, they were separated for six years while World War II raged in Europe. For Peter, the war was a body-crushing and soul-crushing event. Captured almost immediately by the Germans, he spent years in a prisoner work camp, reduced to skin and bone, witnessing and carrying out unthinkable acts in the struggle for survival. While in the camp, he made friends with Archie, a terrified boy just turned seventeen. Together, the two of them form a friendship that can only be born from the horrors they both experience. After the war the friendship continues as Peter meets regularly with Archie and Archie’s wife Helen to relive that part of their lives which civilians (and especially Rhoda) will never understand.
For Rhoda, the war was a grayness that took over her whole world. Her downtrodden mother, rebellious brother, and tyrannical father leave her little to look forward to at home. The impossibility of marrying and having children of her own gives her no chance to escape her circumstances. With letters delayed or missing, she begins to wonder if she ever really loved Peter? At the same time, she also feels the crushing burden of guilt for this betrayal–what kind of woman abandons a fiance who is suffering in POW camp? When a film company comes to their little town in the north of England, Rhoda works as a waitress for the cast and crew, meeting a charismatic location scout named Matthew. She’s been wearing Peter’s engagement ring for five years now…but is the slim possibility of him being still alive reason enough to halt her budding romance with Matthew?
Alternating between two timelines–the war years and ten years in the future–this book explores what it is that brings two people together, what it means to drift apart, and whether a chasm cut between two souls can ever be bridged.
I am an avid reader of Deborah Swift’s books. Her novel Divided Inheritance, set in seventeenth century England and Spain, pulled me in with its descriptions, its characters, and its superbly balanced plot. This book, Past Encounters, was a much slower start for me. Part of it might have been that I am a little ho-hum about World War II fiction. Another part might have been that the beginning of the novel was somewhat unclear and meandering, although it did certainly leave enough clues to intrigue me. I wasn’t really sure, initially, where the story was taking me, but by the middle of the book, I was hooked, and by the last quarter I was glued to the page. The tragic grandeur of two ordinary people approaching middle age, shackled by the past and haunted in the present, had the surprising ability to keep me fully on tenterhooks.
After finishing the book, I was interested to learn that the film being made in the novel was an actual movie released in 1945 called Brief Encounter. Some of the plot points in the book echo the plot of the 1945 film, woven in with Deborah Swift’s typical artistic skill.
If you have the patience to let this character study percolate for a bit, you will enjoy one of the finest evocations I have encountered of what World War II meant for those who fought in it and those who stayed at home. Recommended.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.