Book review: Those Measureless Fields by Caroline Scott

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Ten years after the Great War ended, a young Lancashire woman is set to discover shocking secrets about the soldier hero she loved and lost.

Author and First World War researcher Caroline Scott returns to her home county in a clever and compelling novel which takes a long, hard look at the harsh realities and poignant legacies of this devastating conflict.

Beautifully observed and packed with vividly drawn characters and fascinating history, Those Measureless Fields takes us from the back streets of a Lancashire town to the killing fields of Ypres, and from the mud of Passchendaele to Jazz Age Paris.

Taking centre stage in this moving and reflective story is 30-year-old Effie Shaw whose brother and fiancé died in the war. Since then, she has been live-in housekeeper and carer for a Pals regiment officer who was gassed at Ypres and has been slowly dying for a decade.

His death and the diaries he bequeathed to her spark a sea change in her life as a journey to the war zone’s heartlands finally opens her eyes to the mental and physical landscape of war… the slaughter of innocents, the ferocity of battle and the hidden truths waiting to spring their ugly surprises.

Effie Shaw is 31, virtually alone and at a crossroads in her life. She has spent ten years sharing ‘a roof, a sweet tooth and a taste for pastoral romances’ with former Pals captain Laurence (Laurie) Greene.

Before he passed away, Laurie declared that he had always secretly loved Effie despite serving in France with her fiancé Private Joe Young, a steady, ‘well-scrubbed’ young man who, she has been assured, died a hero.

Uncertain of her future now, Effie learns that Laurie has bequeathed her his war diaries, a railway ticket, the deeds to a tea shop and instructions to travel to Ypres and visit Joe’s grave.

Laurie’s diaries reveal his journey from war training on the sands of Morecambe Bay in 1915, through the stench, fear and brutality of war to the horrors of the German gas attack that cut short his days.

But journey’s end is even more shocking than Effie had imagined when she discovers that Joe wasn’t the hero she had been led to believe and his grave is nowhere to be found.

As Effie travels on to Paris, the stories of three soldiers connected through Laurie’s diary become linked together once again. A decade on from the Armistice, the war still has a hold on the present…

As much at home on the battlefield as she is in the terraced houses of Lancashire, Scott gets to the beating heart of damaged nations and bewildered survivors coming to terms with the pain and grief of the past and a sometimes uncomfortable present.

With pitch perfect skill and narrative power, she counterbalances the horrors of a relentlessly cruel war with the optimism and cynicism of a country in the process of renewal. Ypres, a city once mired in mud, blood and gas, is now a building site littered with the bricks and mortar of its rebirth and street sellers shamelessly hawking mementoes of dead soldiers.

In rejuvenated Paris, the charmingly down-to-earth, warm-hearted and witty Effie learns to live again… to dance, to enjoy the company of others and to hope that the future holds more than mourning and memories.

Written with insight, honesty and humanity, Those Measureless Fields is a haunting exploration of war and its aftermath, and a heartfelt tribute to those who gave their tomorrow for our today.

(Pen & Sword, hardback, £16.99)