Living through major historical events is, for many people, a pretense of their previous life, normal-ish, only different around the edges. For all the heroes storming the hills, there are the civilians living (mostly) how they have before the sky fell.
It isn't as if Lena Kulkova, the protagonist in Barbara Ridley's When It's Over had not been profoundly affected by the rise of the Nazis in the Thirties and Forties. She had moved from her native Czechoslovakia, first to Paris, then to England. Her mother and younger sister are still in Prague when the Nazis invade. Her brother and father escape by joining the Czech Army. She, however, is trying to act as if those profound effects are normal.
Lena's life, however, is largely a matter of existing at the sufferance of others. When we meet her, she is staying with a friend in Paris, hoping to join her lover in England. Her daily routine includes finding food and petitioning the British Embassy for a visa. In a particularly vivid scene, she is treated in the manner perfected by the British civil service: an almost polite way of making the target feel less than human. Then, out of the blue, her lover Otto sends her the precious means to escape.
Escape means first the English countryside, then London during the Blitz.
Even in the worst of times, Lena strives to make things "normal," wherever she is. She wants to cooks meals at home, mend clothes, recreate the world her mother had, even as she fears that world has been destroyed.
Ridley's book is full of the details that make historical fiction satisfying. In Paris, Lena gets a government-issued gas mask from a kindly Frenchwoman, although, as an illegal resident, she is not entitled to one. The meals served on the commercial flight from Paris to England include pate, served by a steward. Churchill, the hero of the war effort, irritates voters with his bellicose campaigning near the end of the war. Readers share the experience of Lena and her fellow expatriates as they live day to day as civilians during the war.
As charming as it is to know that "Kolkova" is the feminine of the family name "Kolka," and that cocoa-milk powder was rationed in 1944, it isn't the same as action. Despite being set in a time of tumult, Ridley's book has a curious lack of momentum. Lena does not break out of her passivity until just short of page 300. Even then, she doesn't really take hold of her own life.
That doesn't mean this isn't a compelling story. The slower pace accentuates Ridley's attention to detail. It allows the reader to inhabit Lena's world of waiting, watching and making do, lending it verisimilitude.
Where the book did not work for me was the time shifting, which Ridley practiced in a tentative manner. There is a brief flashback to the Spanish Civil War, a little back and forth between 1939 and 1940, then a more or less linear story. It ends with a leap to the almost present that seems unrelated to the rest of the book, as if the author wanted to add a modern button to the piece. There are helpful headings—"Paris, 1939"—Sussex, 1940"—but the shifting doesn't build suspense or reveal character particularly well.
Still, When It's Over is a good read, and sure to be especially enjoyable for those with a particular interest in World War II.
Barbara Ridley was raised in England but has lived in California for more than thirty years. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, which included publication in numerous professional journals, she is now focused on creative writing. Her work has appeared in literary journals, such as The Writers Workshop Review, Still Crazy, Ars Medica, The Copperfield Review, and BLYNKT. This is her first novel. Ridley lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner and her dog, and has one adult daughter, of whom she is immensely proud. Visit her website.
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