Rhys Bowen novels are always rather slow-moving, episodic, and character driven, which is kind of what I like about them. They feel rather calming, like an escape into someone else’s life. Common features are that the protagonists are always female, always artistic in some way (Josie in this one is a baker and runs a tea shop), they’re always set in WWII Britain, and there’s always a romance, but a complicated one–they’re never just single.
In “Where the Sky Begins,” Josie is in a loveless marriage to a domineering man named Stan–though he isn’t just an ogre for no reason. Bowen establishes that he’s insecure, which manifests as jealousy (so he forbids her from having contact with any other men). Stan also fears that Josie might be a capable woman and might show him up or not need him, so he controls her. He’s certain he won’t get drafted into the war, but then he does. Josie then has to find some way to support herself, so she gets a job working in a little tea shop, and becomes endeared to its elderly owner. But then London is bombed, and Josie loses everything–the tea shop and its owner, and everything she owns, down to the clothes on her back.
She’s transported to the countryside, where apparently the British government forced private citizens to house those who had been displaced, and finds herself in the home of a prickly old woman named Miss Harcourt, and her one Irish maid, an enigmatic woman named Kathleen who sometimes seems to appreciate Josie’s help, and alternately seems spiteful to her. Miss Harcourt happens to live near an RAF base, so after winning her hostess over, Josie convinces her to open up her house as a tea room for the men. In the process, Josie meets and falls in love with a Canadian pilot named Mike. It’s an odd, complicated romance because Josie is married and doesn’t want to be unfaithful to her husband, but she also doesn’t love him, and he’s pretty awful. He comes back from the war in a surprise visit, and the contrast between the way he treats Josie and the way Mike does is even more profound. It’s like Bowen doesn’t want to sanction adultery, but she’s trying to convince the reader that this is really a special case…
There are a number of other episodic incidents that definitely don’t follow the typical plot structure, which I just find intriguing. Bowen just writes as long as she wants to write, and ends when she feels like it. Josie gets commissioned as a spy and catches one in the act of relaying information to Germany. Stan later gets wounded and she leaves to take care of him. She finds out Mike may not be who he seems to be. An older Jewish doctor later proposes marriage when she’s (not surprisingly) free, and she has to decide whether she wants to marry a second time for practical reasons rather than for love. The story does have a happy ending, though, like all of Bowen’s books. They’re not page-turners; you don’t have to know what happens next, and I probably wouldn’t read it again… just a relaxing escape.
My rating: ****
Violence: war only but not gratuitous
Sexual content: present… but the gratuitous scene is actually with her husband, and it’s rather disturbing. There’s adultery too but that’s not gratuitous, just fade-to-black
Woke content: none