Shelter is one of those rare books that manages to combine the sad and the heartwarming into one big, feelgood story that will have you welling up at points (it did me, at least). This book was written by a two-time judge of the Costa Short Story Award, so you know it’s going to be good, and it is: tackling weighty subjects like war, love, motherhood and family, it’s definitely a summer read to remember.
It’s also quite an unusual- and fresh- take on that most discussed of subjects, World War Two. Taking us all the way to the Forest of Dean where Connie has just started work in the Women’s Land Army as a forester, we learn over the course of the story that Connie’s whole family was wiped out in an air raid in Coventry- and that a night with American soldier has left her pregnant, though she’s determined to make the best of it.
On the other side, we have Seppe, an Italian POW who couldn’t be happier to have been captured. It’s a chance for him to rebuild a life for himself, away from his abusive father, and away from a war he never wanted to fight. When he’s offered work in the forest, he jumps at it- and then he meets Connie. For him, the forest offers shelter from his past.
Watching these two interact is simply lovely; Franklin does a fantastic job of sketching out fully rounded, believable characters in only a few sentences, and she doesn’t cleave to stereotypes: this is real life, and we’re not necessarily guaranteed a happy ending.
There’s no sense of unrealistic romance: the two main characters meet, they work together; and a relationship slowly develops that each person wants different things from. Connie is an unapologetically strong female character, whose bullishness is slowly peeled back as her relationship with Seppe progresses to reveal her vulnerable side. Connie is unusual, I think, for a female character, because Franklin makes her brave enough to want things she’s not supposed to want: she doesn’t want to settle down with Seppe, though she cares for him, and he loves her deeply, and she doesn’t want to be chained down by motherhood, even though she loves her child deeply. Say what you like, but in my book that’s ballsy.
The supporting characters, and the setting is equally beautifully written- in fact, Goodnight Mr Tom springs to mind. All of the characters are given their own stories to tell, and their own story arcs over the course of the novel; the war is never far from Franklin’s writing, though it’s easy to forget it in her lush descriptions of the forest and of the slow, traditional life of the forester. Similarly, life in the Italian POW camp, and Seppe’s relationship with his fellow prisoners, is also given equal screen time, making it seem understandable that he would try so hard to break free and become part of a different family: the small one brought together by the birth of Connie’s child. In this book, nationhood isn’t important: love, and the family you choose, is.
The plot ambles- it’s more of an exploration of the effects of war, and the relationship between all of the characters, than it is a high-stakes action thriller, but it’s all the more touching for that. Watching the characters grow closer and overcome their mutual distrust of each other is heartwarming to watch- though the ending has a shock twist that will wrench at your heartstrings. Funny, touching and tragic, this book is a must-read- if it’s not on your to-do list, it should be!
Book cover taken from Goodreads.