Margaret James’ THE SILVER LOCKET is the story of a spirited young woman on the eve of World War One who decides that she can no longer bear the tedium of waiting to be married to the right gentleman, and leaves home to become a nurse during the war.
What is really great about this novel is the detail about what nursing was like during the 1914-18 war. What is less great is the plot, which provides the predictably unpredictable happy ending. What really needs work is the pacing of the story, which doesn’t work at all. What I mean by that is that events happen suddenly and abruptly with no setup. For example, when Rose returns to her home in Dorset with Phoebe’s baby, her mother immediately assumes that it must be hers. When Rose protests that it isn’t, her mother won’t believe her.
The problem with this is that the reader isn’t given much basis for judging this incident. We know that there are the inevitable mother-daughter tensions, and that Rose’s mother wants her to marry well, whereas Rose would prefer to educate herself. But we don’t get much interior monologue, because the book is replete with tells, in which Ms. James tells the reader what to think. In the example below, the tells appear in BLOCK CAPS.
“Mummy, don’t be ridiculous!” ROSE COULD NOT BELIEVE WHAT SHE WAS HEARING. SHE SHOOK HER HEAD AS IF TO CLEAR IT. “This is not my child! I wasn’t pregnant, I—”
“You expect me to believe you?” Lady Courtenay turned her head away.
“Mummy, pregnant women are enormous, they have bulging stomachs, they—”
[At this point, Rose’s mother makes a long speech.]
This passage would have been better if it had been re-written as follows:
“Mummy, don’t be ridiculous!” Rose scrutinized her mother’s face. Where was that warm smile she’d come to expect? Why was Mummy staring at her in that way? Her light blue eyes had gone cold, the color of an icy lake. Rose’s stomach clenched.
“You expect me to believe you?” Lady Courtenay turned away.
She moved closer. “Mummy, pregnant women are enormous, they have bulging stomachs, they—”
But Frances Courtenay wouldn’t look at her daughter. She twisted her white hands, pulling and tugging at her jeweled rings.
The result of using tells as opposed to interior monologue means that we don’t really know in detail what Rose thinks about her mother, or what her mother thinks about Rose. And so this clash seems abrupt, jarring and not believable. Three stars.