Skip to main content

The Whispers of War

Review

The Whispers of War

Following the 2019 release of her tremendously popular book, THE LIGHT OVER LONDON, Julia Kelly returns with THE WHISPERS OF WAR, a work of historical fiction focusing on the lives of three young women living in London during the start of World War II. Bound by a deep, lasting friendship and their sense of loyalty to one another and their country, they fight for their freedom as the world is thrown into disarray.

Beginning in the present day, the novel introduces readers to Samantha, who has recently lost her beloved grandmother, Marie. In addition to her inheritance, she receives a very specific letter demanding that she travel to England to hand-deliver a special package to her grandmother’s lifelong friend, Nora. Upon arriving in the eccentric old woman’s home, Samantha learns that there was so much more to her grandmother than snuggles and bedtime stories. Marie had to fight for her freedom during the start of World War II, and it is largely due to her friendship with Nora that she survived. Settling in with lots of tea and a bit of jetlag, Samantha readies herself to hear Marie’s tale, as told by Nora.

"Marie’s journey is so satisfying, heartbreaking and inspiring that it feels both reminiscent of works like THE NIGHTINGALE and THE LOST GIRLS OF PARIS and completely fresh."

The year is 1939, and all of Britain is watching carefully as Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, threatens to attack Poland, thereby forcing the world into another war to end wars. In London, three young women are paying particularly close attention --- for one of them is German-born, with a distinct accent that she worries will turn her into a scapegoat for her neighbors who remember all too well the lives they lost the last time England went to war with Germany. Former debutante and current happily single homeowner and independent woman Nora works in the Home Office’s Air Raid Precautions Department, where she dreams up solutions to some of the country’s biggest and most unsolvable problems, facing intense pushback from her male superiors. Married matchmaker Hazel has a keen eye for characterizing the people she meets, but she is holding secrets of her own that threaten her eternal optimism. And then there’s Marie, a German expat residing with her beloved aunt and uncle --- and their insufferable son, Henrik. Marie remembers Germany well enough and has found work in the German Department at a local school, but her heart lies in England, where she has found best friends, purpose and maybe even love.

As England declares war on Germany, Kelly whisks her readers along as rations become scarce, gas masks become necessities, and long-simmering prejudices and discriminations become all too obvious. Though Marie holds an esteemed position at her job and has done good work in the past, her entire life is thrown into the spotlight when one of the men she assists is declared a Nazi sympathizer after fleeing in the night. Marie knows nothing about his personal life --- it is even revealed that he kept a separate planner hidden away from her --- but this does not matter to the Home Office and their sergeants. As the lead detective begins to breathe down Marie’s neck, she worries not only for her own safety, but for the safety of her aunt and uncle, who fled an impossible situation in Germany and are endlessly grateful for the security they have found in England.

Of course, as the Home Office digs into Marie’s past, they also dip into the histories of Nora and Hazel --- one of whom has some suspicious ties of her own to Nazi sympathizers and British informants.

Kelly tracks the girls’ lives from August 1939 to June 1940 --- a seemingly impossibly short time for entire lives to be upended, but such is the nature of war. As Marie goes from a respected and sought-after young woman to an unemployed scapegoat for British prejudices, Nora and Hazel are changed too. Nora, always stubborn and independent, takes her love and loyalty to the next level, even giving up her beloved career for something entirely new and challenging. Hazel, meanwhile, turns her matchmaking skills upon herself and asks whether or not she is truly happy --- or if she even deserves the happy endings she is so good at helping her clients find. Drawing upon deep and surprising research into the lives of Germans living abroad during World War II and her own tender and lyrical prose, Kelly paints a portrait not only of the world at war, but of the lives of the real citizens who experienced it and fought for their freedoms to live, love and build friendships.

Though World War II is hugely popular in historical fiction, I believe that THE WHISPERS OF WAR is unique in its representation of the experience of a young German woman in London. Marie’s journey is so satisfying, heartbreaking and inspiring that it feels both reminiscent of works like THE NIGHTINGALE and THE LOST GIRLS OF PARIS and completely fresh. The women at the heart of the book are delightfully modern --- they drink sidecars with breakfast when the situation calls for it, meet at a women’s-only club, and work and support themselves like men. But Kelly writes with such a keen eye for detail that her characters never feel anachronistic; they read as strong, quirky and, well, badass. Though their friendships are of the highest importance to them, they never put aside their own ambitions and chances at happiness, which highlights Kelly’s careful character arcs and compassion for her creations.

It is difficult for me to find anything negative to say about THE WHISPERS OF WAR, but I did wish for more closure on Hazel’s story. The unique format of the book --- told in three parts with short, present-day chapters in between --- lends itself to fleshing out each of its characters, but also leaves room for greater connections between each part and the present. It is my great hope that Kelly is setting up room for a sequel or prequel, but I am equally prepared to read whatever else she has planned next. If THE WHISPERS OF WAR is any indication, it will be sweeping, emotionally resonant and highly educational.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on February 7, 2020

The Whispers of War
by Julia Kelly

  • Publication Date: January 14, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Gallery Books
  • ISBN-10: 1982107790
  • ISBN-13: 9781982107796