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Book Review: The Faithful by Juliet West

Juliet West’s timely second novel The Faithful has Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts pitch their summer camp near a sidelined and restless teenager’s seaside home, forever changing her life, if not the course of history as is their wider intention.

July 1935. In the village of Aldwick on the Sussex coast, sixteen-year-old Hazel faces a long, dull summer with just her self-centred mother Francine for company. But then Francine decamps to London with her lover Charles, Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts arrive in Aldwick, and Hazel’s summer suddenly becomes more interesting. She finds herself befriended by two very different people: Lucia, an upper-class blackshirt, passionate about the cause; and Tom, a young working-class boy, increasingly scornful of Mosley’s rhetoric. In the end, though, it is Tom who wins Hazel’s heart – and Hazel who breaks his.

Autumn 1936. Now living in London, Hazel has grown up fast over the past year. But an encounter with Tom sends her into freefall. He must never know why she cut off all contact last summer, betraying the promises they’d made. Yet Hazel isn’t the only one with secrets. Nor is she the only one with reason to keep the two of them apart . . .

I think most people will be able to identify with Hazel, her lack of direction and boredom at the prospect of facing a long, hot summer largely left to her own devices, exacerbated by her best friend rushing off to Wales with her family to visit their sick grandmother. It’s only natural that she watches these incomers with interest: the blackshirts march through her town, and later relax on the beach on the other side of her garden wall. I can’t blame her for feeling drawn towards these new people, particularly when she experiences those first sparks of recognition and connection with Lucia and Tom, that friction which can catch you off-guard, signalling the beginning of a friendship or relationship, be it love or lust.

This week turns out to be life-changing for Hazel: her own curiosity is partly at play here, and her choice of summer reading almost makes it inevitable. But Hazel’s coming-of-age is both tender and shocking and it’s her reaction to that which made this book for me. Hazel is a revelation and the character who surprises me in The Faithful: there are hidden depths to her. While I started by sympathising with her summer predicament, I ended up admiring her strength and determination to make the best of the situation. In contrast to others in the book, it has far less to do with ideology for her, and more to do with practicality.  

Lucia flashes with surface brilliance and initially dazzles Hazel but I didn’t feel as if I ever got a proper handle on her character or its motivation. She tries to put herself centre-stage but ends up playing a bit part because other characters were more interesting to me – and Hazel. Hazel’s mother, Francine, and Tom’s mother, Bea, and the surprising common denominator, Charles, and his particularly savoury way to make a living deserve honourable mentions here.

Tom has far more substance, although he nearly doesn’t by dithering about getting on the bus to go to summer camp. His and Hazel’s paths might never have crossed. But he does, and they meet, and he leaves confused about her feelings towards him. Tom’s also struggling with his own beliefs and what that means to his relationship with his parents, and especially his mother. I enjoyed seeing how he develops and grows throughout The Faithful: what he holds constant and what changes about him and his beliefs.

What I enjoyed so much about this book is not only how multi-layered the main characters are, but that their story can be read on a number of levels. You can read The Faithful in one or more of the following ways: as one young girl and boy’s coming-of-age in 1930s England; as a story about first love; as a social history and a look at social norms and acceptable behaviour; as a comment on the state of the English classes at this time and the changes coming, of which Hazel is an unsuspecting pioneer; as a look at this challenging time in (British) post-WWI politics where communists and fascists were coming into the mainstream; or simply as a story about the (often-fraught) relationship between mothers and daughters.

The Faithful is such a richly rewarding read that I’m now firmly in Juliet West’s band of faithful readers, and I’m pretty sure that’s an ideologically sound place to camp out this summer.

The Faithful by Juliet West is published by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, and is available from today as an audiobook and ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and Wordery. You can find out more about Juliet West and her books on her Author Website, or on Twitter

*GIVEAWAY* I have one copy of Juliet West’s debut novel Before the Fall to give away. Leave a comment and the squirrels will pick a winner.

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