Friday, 10 July 2015

Letters from Malta by Mary Rensten

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: Early on in this book, Rensten drops the jaw-dropping fact that more bombs were dropped on the tiny island of Malta in two months during 1942 than were dropped on London in a whole year of the Blitz.

Such was Malta’s strategic importance that, once they joined the War in 1940, the Luftwaffe threw everything it could at the island. The fact that the islanders withstood the bombardment is one of the most extraordinary stories of the War. In the midst of the consequent chaos and deprivation, acts of heroism and bravery inevitably tangle with acts of recklessness and deceit.

Jane Thornfield’s father served in Malta in the Royal Artillery during the War. That much she knows – or thinks she knows. But when her elderly mother has a fall and ends up in hospital, Jane stumbles on an envelope containing three letters that turn her life upside down. The man she thought was her father may not be her father at all. Instead, she is the daughter of another gunner – a man called Peter Andersen who died in 1942 at the age of 23.

On impulse, Jane takes a holiday in Malta to find out more about this unknown father and how he died. But on this small island, wartime secrets turn out to be more complicated – and cast a longer shadow – than she could possibly have imagined.

The accidental discovery of family secrets via letters or photographs is hardly a new idea, but it is a rich seam to mine. And Rensten’s use of Malta as a setting gives a fresh take on an old theme. The author doesn’t weigh the contemporary story down with wartime backstory, but she makes effective use of the details she does reveal – like the reusable tin coffins.

Jane is that relatively rare thing in contemporary literature – a middle aged heroine with plenty of spark left in her. She is a warm likeable protagonist who sets off to tackle the mystery as if it were just another piece of research.  As complications pile up and doubts set in, it is easy for the reader to empathise with her dilemma.

All in all, an ideal holiday read.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Family Album by Penelope Lively; Private Papers by Margaret Forster; The Sex Life of My Aunt by Mavis Cheek

Avoid if you don’t like: Digging up family secrets

Ideal accompaniments: Torta tal-lampuki (fish and spinach pie) and a chilled glass of Maltese Chardonnay

Genre: Contemporary, Women's, Family Secrets

Available from Amazon

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