Days of Grace is a coming-of-age novel set in World War II England with a lesbian twist.
12 year-old Nora from London is evacuated prior to the commencement of the War to idyllic Kent. A poor city girl, she is handpicked by the parson’s daughter, Grace, to stay with them. Grace and Nora are the same age, but their lives until that point could not have been more different. Nora was being raised along by her mother in a small, dirty city flat. Grace lived with her mother and father in a lovely parsonage, seemingly wanting for nothing.
WWII changes Nora’s life, in many ways, for the better. She is being educated by Reverend Rivers each day, has a constant companion in the daring and charming Grace, and is well fed and clothed for the first time in her life. When a call comes saying Nora can return to her mother in London or stay at the parsonage, Nora chooses to stay. In her innocence, she unknowingly chooses Grace and the Rivers family over her own mother.
As the years pass and the war comes closer and closer to idyllic Kent - fighter planes overhead, blackouts, nights in the bomb shelter, and less food for everyone - Nora and Grace pass through innocent girlhood and into their teen years. Nora begins to struggle with her growing romantic feelings for Grace, trying desperately each day not to think about Grace or fantasize about a shared future. She also chafes at Grace’s growing interest in boys and adventures outside of their insular lives. Nora would be happy to stay with Grace forever.
Everything changes for both girls as their respective families unravel around them. Childhood is over and Grace and Nora are thrust into adulthood as they run away to wartime London and try to survive on their own. Grace is befriended by Bernard (think David in “An Education”), a man who sells black market ration books, booze, and other stolen goods. Bernard puts Grace and Nora up in an apartment where he stores his stolen wares and sets about wooing a young, beautiful, and impressionable Grace. Nora is hurt and appalled as her friend and love interest falls prey to Bernard’s charms. Inevitably, disaster strikes as a result of Grace's reckless romance and Nora tries to pick-up the pieces with tragic results.
Alternating chapters take the reader into the life of elderly Nora as she observes a young, pregnant neighbor across the street. Nora watches the young woman grower larger each day, as Nora herself grows more ill with (self-diagnosed) cancer. When she realizes the mysterious young woman is clearly hiding in her room in labor, Nora takes a chance and goes over to see if she can help. She finds Rose in advanced labor and helps her give birth. Once the baby is safely born, Nora convinces Rose to move-in with her. Having a young friend and a baby in the house brings new hope to Nora, even as her physical decline becomes more rapid. As she sinks further and further into her illness, she reflects on her time with Grace.
Catherine Hall moves the narrative back-and-forth between elderly Nora and young Nora, weaving the story of her adoration of Grace with her friendship with Rose and creating a “circle of life” story about love, longing, loss, and atonement.
I was interested to see how Hall handled Nora’s homosexuality in a historical setting and the overall tone was consistent with the emotional and sexual repression of the time. However, it seemed a bit of a cop-out to strip Nora of any type of sexuality in order to keep Grace blissfully unaware of Nora’s true, lustful feelings for her. Nora becomes a fundamentally miserable character and it is not difficult to imagine how she turned out that way after a lifetime of denying her true self.
I read Days of Grace straight through and was intrigued by Nora’s story, but I wasn't bowled over. This is the perfect library book to check-out when you want something to read over a long weekend.