AWC16: I Can’t Begin to Tell You by Elizabeth Buchan

Review published on October 12, 2016.

Historical fiction is not my preferred genre but I try to stretch myself and this novel hooked me with an aspect of WW2 I’d not come across – British supported Danish Resistance.

British-born Kay is torn between her Danish husband, Bror Eberstern, who collaborates with enemy occupiers in an effort to preserve Rosenlund, his family home; and her resistance to the Nazis thus imperilling herself, their marriage and children – Rosenlund’s headstrong heir, Tanne, and her brother, pragmatic scholar Nils.

An interesting idea, and underlining women’s steely contributions to the war, unfortunately (and surprisingly from a bestselling author) let down by its execution.

Damp palms and a queasy stomach were predictable’: in that early example of her prose, Elizabeth Buchan might, knowingly or otherwise, have given the definition of ‘cliché’. Still I can forgo exquisite writing if the story bowls me along (although it’s nice to get both!) but for the first half of the book pace is slow…then later, events whizz past at an unrealistic rate.

I never object to, in fact in secure hands I adore a large cast and multi-viewpoint but here I conjecture the author’s research on Intelligence communications – intriguing but nonetheless a subplot – distracted her from fleshing out the main characters.

The social class of wealthy landowners, the Ebersterns, contrasts with that of the signals clerks, and the codebreakers’ emotional attachments to their covert field ‘Joes’ are revealing (as well as discouraged by the commanding officers) so these add to the tension. But coders’ romantic entanglements are superfluous in this structure and detract from it.

The title is almost prophetic – the writer does begin to tell us but doesn’t follow through. The sex isn’t sexy enough, the danger not ‘nerve-jingling’ (Sunday Times review) enough, motivations not strong enough. Divided family loyalties should be more gut-wrenching but Kay slips into espionage off the back of a tiff with Bror over his political stance and her subsequent flirtation with his jealous Secret Service cousin.

When young Tanne becomes embroiled in Kay’s murky world and is sent away to hoped-for safety, would German authorities really accept a suspected agent’s explanation for her daughter’s disappearance when its verification would be simple? There are several plot holes like this.

Danish words are thrown in but I want to know Denmark where I’ve never been and the principal setting could be any country estate.

It is said time is too short to spend on a book that doesn’t enthuse the reader. It’s also said a book with problems is never wasted on a writer if they can learn from those mistakes. Ultimately a book review is one opinion and others are free to disagree. I don’t like to sound ungrateful for this World Book Night gift but I’d score it 3 out of 5; a stimulating read not fulfilling its potential.

I was left all dressed up and nowhere to go.

Janice Braysher

AWC16: I Can’t Begin to Tell You by Elizabeth Buchan
Penguin 978-0-718-18487-2 pbk
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