The Blue Bench by Paul Marriner #BookReview #BlogTour

Margate 1920. The Great War is over but Britain mourns and its spirit is not yet mended.

Edward and William have returned from the front as changed men. Together they have survived grotesque horrors and remain haunted by memories of comrades who did not come home. The summer season in Margate is a chance for them to rebuild their lives and reconcile the past.

Evelyn and Catherine are young women ready to live life to the full. Their independence has been hard won and, with little knowledge of the cost of their freedom, they are ready to face new challenges side by side.

Can they define their own future and open their hearts to the prospect of finding love? Will the summer of 1920 be a turning point for these new friends? As the body of the Unknown Warrior is returned, can the nation find a way forward?

I'm so pleased to be hosting the blog tour for The Blue Bench today. Many thanks to Paul Marriner and Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me and for sending me a copy of the novel.

The Blue Bench is set after the end of the First World War but the wounds - both physical and mental - left on the men who served and the nation as a whole are far from healed. Much of the WW1 fiction I've read features the visceral brutality of the conflict; here we are reminded that the anguish didn't end on Armistice Day but lingered for years afterwards.
The book opens in 1940 as a young man, Patrick meets 'his ladies', Evelyn and Catherine in London. It becomes apparent that this has been an annual pilgrimage for the women for the past twenty years with Patrick having joined them on seven or eight occasions. Their visit is clearly an act of remembrance, despite their trip to the Lyons Corner House. It is the day of Neville Chamberlain's funeral but they discuss two other men who have died  - William recently and Edward many years previously. As if to underline the futility of the former hope that the Great War would be 'the war to end all wars', Patrick is also planning to enlist and will join the Royal Fusiliers, the same regiment Edmund served with.
After a very brief scene at Vimy Ridge in 1917 - the significance of which becomes clear later, the story switches to 1920 and it is this period which provides the setting for most of the novel. Evelyn is the daughter of a Spitalfields based Reverend who sets up a mission in Margate every year for the Londoners who travel to Kent for the hop picking season. She usually helps him with their work to provide practical and spiritual support to the workers but this year has a new role, to help support Alice, a family friend who is pregnant and her husband, Alistair in their tearoom. Meanwhile, Edward and Willam are also staying in the seaside town as Edward has a summer position playing the piano in the Winter Gardens. Evelyn finds an evening job here working on the coat check desk and meets Catherine. The four young people quickly become friends but despite the supposed promise of a new decade of peace, the shadow of the war still hangs over them all.
The most obviously scarred is Edmund whose horrific injuries mean he is now fitted with a mask over one side of his face. The reaction of others to his appearance ranges from awkward pity to downright revulsion but what they don't see is that the mask is more than just a physical sign of the lasting damage incurred on this young man. It also a powerful symbol of the suffering endured by the individual and on the population as a whole. The survivors and the bereaved each wear their own masks in one way or another as they attempt to move on while still dealing with the enduring repercussions of the war; from the maimed, disfigured veterans who struggle to fit into a society which pities them but resents the horror they represent to the grieving families whose loved ones were left behind in the killing fields and mud of Europe or in the seas around it.
The campaign to honour and remember the fallen, particularly those with no known resting place is an important part of the novel and features the real-life former army chaplain, the Reverend Railton, who had the idea for the grave of the Unknown Warrior to become a place where the nation could collectively mourn and remember the sacrifice of those who never returned. The poignant scenes where his vision is finally realised are intensely emotional and an effective reminder of how much the country needed to be given somewhere to grieve and to seek solace. This was a nation which was yearning for peace and hope but still sharing the desperate, collective weight of the loss of so many husbands, fathers and sons.
The Blue Bench perfectly captures the mood of this strange moment in time; a country which was on the verge of immense social and political upheaval whilst still torn apart by what had gone before. Although it is necessarily a rather melancholy book, there are lighter moments, particularly between Evelyn and Catherine recognising that this was a period of important change for women too. Paul Marriner's research and attention to detail, such as films showing at the cinema, the music Edward plays and the Americanisms which pepper Catherine's speech ensures an authentic sense of time and place throughout.
Some novels about war are concerned with the dramatic moments; the fire, fear, blood and guts of battle. The Blue Bench, however, is a quieter, more introspective book but that shouldn't suggest it's any less compelling. On the contrary, it is a thought-provoking and deeply moving book and my response to reading it was similar to my emotional experience when I visited the Menin Gate last year. I think most of us are aware of the vast numbers of men who died in the First World War but it's seeing their names on a memorial or reading a story about a young man expected to make decisions nobody should ever make, which reminds us of the very human cost, both in terms of those who never returned and those who were left behind. The Blue Bench is an important, honest read, beautifully told and it moved me to tears. I highly recommend it.

The Blue Bench is published by Bluescale Publishing and can be purchased here.

Don't miss the rest of the blog tour, details are below.

About the Author

Paul grew up in a west London suburb and now lives in Berkshire with his wife and two children. He is passionate about music, sport and, most of all, writing, on which he now concentrates full-time. Paul has written four novels and his primary literary ambition is that you enjoy reading them while he is hard at work on the next one (but still finding time to play drums with Redlands and Rags 2 Riches).
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  1. Dear Karen,

    Thank you for hosting today's stop on the blog tour and for such a lovely review. It really does make a big difference to know that readers have connected with the story and is the best encouragement a writer can have! Thank you very much.

    If your readers have any comments or quesitons I'd love to see.

    Best wishes,

    Paul Marriner

  2. Huge thanks for the blog tour support Karen xx


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