The Light Over London by Julia Kelly
Published: January 2019
Genre: historical fiction
It’s always been easier for Cara Hargraves to bury herself in the past than confront the present, which is why working with a gruff but brilliant antiques dealer is perfect. While clearing out an estate, she pries open an old tin that holds the relics of a lost relationship: among the treasures, a World War II-era diary and a photograph of a young woman in uniform. Eager to find the author of the hauntingly beautiful, unfinished diary, Cara digs into this soldier’s life, but soon realizes she may not have been ready for the stark reality of wartime London she finds within the pages.
In 1941, nineteen-year-old Louise Keene’s life had been decided for her—she’ll wait at home in her Cornish village until her wealthy suitor returns from war to ask for her hand. But when Louise unexpectedly meets Flight Lieutenant Paul Bolton, a dashing RAF pilot stationed at a local base, everything changes. And changes again when Paul’s unit is deployed without warning.
Desperate for a larger life, Louise joins the women’s branch of the British Army in the anti-aircraft gun unit as a Gunner Girl. As bombs fall on London, she and the other Gunner Girls relish in their duties to be exact in their calculations, and quick in their identification of enemy planes during air raids. The only thing that gets Louise through those dark, bullet-filled nights is knowing she and Paul will be together when the war is over. But when a bundle of her letters to him are returned unanswered, she learns that wartime romance can have a much darker side.
While searching through a client’s estate for antiques to bring back to the shop, Cara stumbles across an old tin filled with trinkets and a diary. The diary belongs to a young Cornish woman in 1941, experiencing her first romance and making a name for herself as a Gunner Girl. Cara has experienced recent turmoil in her life and solving the mystery of the owner of the diary rejuvenates her. She is determined to identify the owner of the diary and return it to her, especially because it may lead to answers in Cara’s own family’s past. The Gunner Girl, Louise, breaks free from her mother’s oppressive control by enlisting in the ATS, and then becoming one of the first women in Ack-Ack Command, shooting down German planes bombing London and other large cities—but she also finds herself caught in a whirlwind romance that does more harm than good.
I was listening to this book on audio, two hours away from finishing, when I had to return it to the library—so I ran to the bookstore and bought it to finish! I love the WWII fiction that’s coming out lately, focusing on the brilliant efforts women made during the war, the unsung heroes and lesser-known stories, the powerful female friendships taking center stage over the wartime romances. Don’t get me wrong, romance is fine, but the accounts of these brave women are far more inspiring, empowering, and interesting to me. (Plus I love a good modern-day heroine who is a curator, archivist, librarian, etc…)
What touched me most about this novel was Louise’s story. She’s swept up into a love affair as epic as the movies, full of urgency due to the war. She’s desperate to leave her mother’s grasp and defiant in anything her mother believed, but also wants to find herself in the midst of turmoil. Her search for an identity, to know herself and her strengths and weaknesses, and subsequently finding the thrill of independence among other like-minded women, was such a joy to read, even during her naivete in love. I want more of this. More female empowerment, more female friendships, and less focus on finding The One in order to make oneself “whole.” The Light Over London is all about second chances, starting over, reinvention, independence, and strength amidst chaos.
This book is perfect for fans of Guernsey Literary and The Alice Network (likely also Lilac Girls and The Nightingale, though I’ve yet to read those!). Next on my TBR is The Huntress so expect lots of feminist history reviews!
This qualifies as book 2 of 10 in my library books challenge.