‘And then it was Christmas Eve… The house was full of expectation and excitement – cooking smells coming from the kitchen, shouts from the children, people disappearing into rooms to write Christmas cards and wrap presents and plan complicated secrets.’
Set a century ago, The Silent Stars Go By achieves the very clever trick of appearing to have been written at the time, while confronting a serious issue in a way that will resonate with modern day readers.
‘Margot had a strange lump in her chest, somewhere between grief and envy.
Look what you’re giving him, she told herself fiercely. Just look at him! He’d never have a Christmas like this with you, would he?’
Three years before the story begins, Margot, a vicar’s daughter, has become pregnant. Shortly after, boyfriend Harry goes missing in action on the Western Front. With little hope of their becoming a family, she passes the baby to her mother to raise as her own. Then in 1919, with war over, Harry unexpectedly returns. Faced with the added emotional pressure of a family Christmas, Margot is forced to confront the decisions she has made.
‘Margot watched them, her father’s hands helping James to lift the things out of the stockings, and had to look away. Her eye caught her mother’s, standing in the doorway. Her mother, watching her father, watching James. And James, engrossed in his new whistle, unaware of them all.’
Nicholls is good at the torturous family dynamics that arise as the focus is supposed to be on the happiness of the child. But The Silent Stars Go By isn’t a total Christmas angst-fest. What we are reading about is a loving family trying to make the best out of a seemingly impossible situation.
‘“Everything all right, dear?” her mother said – damn mothers, shouldn’t they have better things to do on Christmas than notice their daughters?’
Importantly Christmas brings with it a glimmer of hope and reconciliation for Margot and Harry, as he gifts her a charm bracelet with a note that has added poignancy a century on.
‘I brought this for my girl in Calais, a hundred years ago.’
And the day is made complete by the unveiling of the tree, an event that unites all generations of the family.
‘The little tree sat in the bay window, its candles glowing, the angel on the top with her china wings outstretched, the presents nestling in the branches and beneath it. Margot glanced at James. He was wriggling with excitement, his mouth open, and unaccountably her eyes filled with tears. It had been worth it then, all those lonely days, if it meant there were still moments like this one.’
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