The Faithful is a compelling read where intimate personal narratives are influenced by historical events leading up to World War II.
At the centre of the novel is the character of Hazel, to whom we are first introduced in the summer of 1935. By this time in the teenaged Hazel’s life her well-to-do parents have parted, with her father now living in Paris while she and her glamorous mother, Francine, spend the summer months away from London in their Sussex home.
That July, the coastal village of Aldwick is also the destination for Oswald Mosely’s Blackshirts’ summer camp. While this gathering goes on, Francine’s attentions are focused on an all-consuming love affair, the distraction of which leaves Hazel free to roam about the place at will, developing an attachment with Tom, a working-class Londoner who’s attending the camp with his family, despite already doubting their extremist Fascist politics.
Their social backgrounds may be different but the attraction between the young couple is as intense as it is mutual. However, when Hazel disappears and leaves no explanation, Tom’s fleeting joy in their romance is replaced by yearning misery.
Many months go by and we then witness the Battle of Cable street, when Mosely’s racist marching men confront East London’s migrant residents; a climactic event that convinces Tom to leave his family and home to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Before leaving he meets with Hazel again, at which point he says he’ll keep in touch, despite feeling disappointment that she has now become immersed in a world that he despises; going so far as to share a home with one of Mosely’s female admirers.
As the hardships of their separate lives continue to unfold for us, West weaves a subtle mystery, luring us towards truths so skilfully exposed that the effect is truly shocking. Right up until the story’s end the author sustains the tension, never quite allowing us to guess what fate will have in store for either Tom or Hazel. But, one thing we are sure about is that both are victims of a world riven by conflicts caused by war, by restrictions and differences in class, and the moral hypocrisies of the time.
Running alongside this narrative is the sexual relationship between Hazel’s mother, Francine, and her long-time caddish lover, Charles. These glamorous, tawdry characters are immersed in selfish decadence to the point of ignoring the suffering caused to those who they should love. However, what imprisons them and drives their shared obsession is, in my opinion, West’s triumph of characterisation, with her gradual exploration of the shared experience of guilt leading into the shadiest of realms. We may not like Francine or Charles. We may be repulsed by what they do, but we feel their tragic aching loss, sensing that without such pain their bond would never have been formed.
This tie – call it imprisonment – has themes that resonate through every storyline within this book. There are questions of what connects us. Why do we need to belong, seeking to be protected by lovers, families, or friends; by faiths or political ideals? Why do we need a purpose in life to feel as if we are fulfilled? How is it that our present days are so often informed by the past’s events, and the secrets we have buried there?
The Faithful is a nuanced novel suffused with historical details via settings, clothing, music, food, all of which are beautifully told. But what this book excels in is the depth of emotional honesty, revealing the good and the bad in our hearts while exposing those ‘turn of the screw events’ that appear to heal, but leave a wound forever itching to be scratched. The Faithful is a perfect Summer read.
Essie Fox is the author of three Victorian novels. Her latest, The Last Days of Leda Grey, set in the Edwardian era, is out now. Read Essie’s article on the Ghosts of Silent Film.