Mrs Sinclair's Suitcase by Louise Walters
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
27th February 2014
Forgive me, Dorothea, for I cannot forgive you. What you do, to this child, to this child's mother, it is wrong...
Roberta likes to collect the letters and postcards she finds in second-hand books. When her father gives her some of her grandmother's belongings, she finds a baffling letter from the grandfather she never knew - dated after he supposedly died in the war.
Dorothy is unhappily married to Albert, who is away at war. When an aeroplane crashes in the field behind her house she meets Squadron Leader Jan Pietrykowski, and as their bond deepens she dares to hope she might find happiness. But fate has other plans for them both, and soon she is hiding a secret so momentous that its shockwaves will touch her granddaughter many years later...
8th February 1941
My dear Dorothea,
In wartime, people become desparate. We step outside ourselves. The truth is, I love you and I am sorry that only now do I own it. You love me. I will not forget the touch of your hand on my head and on my next when you thought I slept. The touch of love, no longer imagined. Nobody will touch me like that again. This I know. This is my loss.
Forgive me, Dorothea, for I cannot forgive you. What you do, to this child, to this child's mother, it is wrong. It is misplaced, like me, forced out of my homeland, perhaps never to return. You too will never return, if you persist in this scheme. You will persist. Yet even now it can be undone. But I know you will not undo. Your soul will not return from this that you do. Please believe me. In welcoming the one into your arms, you must lose another. I cannot understand. You know why.
I do not enjoy writing these words to you. Actually, I cry. Once this war is finished - and it must finish - we could have made a life together. To spend my life with you has become my only great dream and desire. After our first meeting, as I rode away on my bicycle, I knew you were as important to me as water. I knew you were for all time, even as there is no time, I thought of marriage within minutes of meeting you. But it cannot be. You are an honourable woman, but this thing that you do is beyond honour. You do so much to be good, yet you go back on yourself, you invite dishonour. I cannot write clearly, but you will understand. My truly beautiful Dorothea, despite everything, our friendship must here end. I wish you all joy of this world.
(I found this letter in a 1910 edition of The Infant's Progress: From the Valley of Destruction to Everlasting Glory. I place the book on Philip's desk for pricing, and it went into the antiquarian books cabinet, priced at a modest £15.)
Roberta works in the Old and New Bookshop. When a used book comes into the shop, she goes through each copy, pulling out the things that have been left behind inside them - train tickets, shopping lists and letters, and keeps them. She loves to imagine the life the book had before it arrived at the bookshop.
One day her father gives her a suitcase that belongs to his mother who is in a nursing home. Tucked inside are a number of books belonging to Dorothy. Inside one of the books is a letter to Roberta's grandmother apparently from her grandfather, Jan Pietrykowski. Only the letter seems to say that he cannot marry her grandmother, and being dated in 1941, also contradicts the story that he died defending London in the Blitz of November 1940. Of course this sets of a train of events all of their own, as Roberta tries to find out more.
I really enjoyed this book by Louise Walters. It's a dual narrative story, flitting between the modern day life of Roberta and her daily life at the bookshop and her relationship with an unsuitable married man, to that of Dorothy, unhappily married and living alone during the Second World War. One day, a Hurricane pilot crashes his plane into a field near her house, and Dorothy bravely tries to rescue him. This leads to her meeting Jan Pietrykowski.
I loved the way Roberta looks for clues in the books she sells for the identity of the previous owner. The Old and New Bookshop sounds just like the sort of bookshop you would want to work in, and I think there is something magical about the way Roberta stores all of this information. Coupled with this is her grandmother's story, and of the suitcase in which she stores all of her treasured things. It is only when this suitcase reaches the hands of Roberta that their lives become even more entwined and that the past that Roberta knew, begins to change before her eyes.
I thought it was a thoroughly enjoyable first novel, and I look forward to reading more by Louise Walters if this is what she can produce. It's definitely a book for book-lovers.
Miss Chapter x