Friday, June 3, 2016

The Lost Soldier by Diney Costeloe

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: March 25, 2016

In 1921, eight ash trees were planted in the dorset village of Charlton Ambrose as a timeless memorial to the men killed in World War One. Overnight a ninth appeared, marked only as for 'the unknown soldier'. But now the village's ashgrove is under threat from developers. Rachel Elliot, a local reporter, sets out to save the memorial and solve the mystery of the ninth tree. In so doing, she uncovers the story of Tom Carter and Molly Day: two young people thrown together by the war, their love for each other, their fears for the present and their hopes for the future. Embroiled in events beyond their control, Tom and Molly have to face up to the harsh realities of the continuing war, the injustices it allows and the sacrifices it demands.

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Originally published as The Ashgrove, Diney Costeloe’s The Lost Soldier begins in 2001, during a public meeting over a housing development in a village called Charlton Ambrose. Rachel Elliot, a local reporter for the Belcaster Chronicle, is captivated when one of the local residents objects the construction plans as they’d necessitate the destruction of a memorial grove planted to honor the village residents who died during the Great War. Rachel takes it upon herself to learn more about the trees and uncovers a long buried secret of honor, sacrifice, tragedy, and enduring faithfulness.

Looking back on the narrative, I freely admit that elements of the modern story felt unnecessary. Rachel’s romantic interest in Nick Potter seemed entirely superfluous in my eyes and the familial connection she unearths struck me as contrived, but Molly Day’s history was so poignantly portrayed that I couldn’t bring myself to rate the novel any lower than five stars. Her story surprised me on a number of levels and I loved how relevant her experiences become to those trying to understand her trials through modern eyes decades after they occurred.

Henry Smalley is a minor character, but one I grew very fond of over the course of the narrative. His journey is not chronicled in detail, but he is the kind of individual who exudes genuine compassion in an era when law and order did not bend to accommodate such sensitivities. Molly’s life is irreparably altered by the conflict, but Henry finds new purpose in the carnage of the Somme and takes it upon himself to look after those left scarred in its aftermath.

There is something very human in this story and I appreciated how Costeloe’s themes drew her audience into the narrative. The action depicted during the first day of the Somme Offensive is brutal, but I was intensely appreciative of the authenticity such detail lent the text. Beginning to end, the novel capitalized on the human elements of the war and I felt Costeloe’s manipulation of the material bridged the gap between a century old conflict and contemporary readers.

I didn’t have any expectations when I picked up The Lost Solider. Not one of the reviewers I follow had read the book and while I was intrigued by the subject matter, I wasn’t entirely convinced it’d be the kind of war story that would hold my interest. That said, the novel surprised me and I feel it one I will recommending many times over in the years to come. 

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“Who do you belong to, I wonder?” she asked aloud. There was nothing to indicate whom each tree commemorated… or that the place was a memorial at all. She moved from tree to tree until she had rested her hand on each trunk, and thought of all the young, fresh-faced men who had gone so jauntily to war, never to return to their homes here in Charlton Ambrose. Such high hopes they must have had. The adventure of fighting in a war, seeing a bit of the world, before settling down to their humdrum lives here in the country.
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