The Last Kiss
Sally Malcolm’s latest novel is something of a departure for anyone familiar with her excellent New Milton series. The Last Kiss is an historical romance set in England immediately after World War One, and it features two characters for whom the class divide is as insurmountable an obstacle to their love for each other as is their sexuality. Ms. Malcolm is one of my favourite writers; her ability to delve deep into the thoughts and emotions of her characters is something that always impresses me, and here, she combines that with a sharply observed, unvarnished look at the problems faced by the men who were lucky enough to return from a war that forever changed them – to a world in which they no longer fit.
Captain Ashleigh Dalton and his batman Private Harry West met in 1914, and became close friends in spite of their difference in rank and backgrounds. Ash is the son of a baronet and worked in a bank and Harry was an ostler in Bethnal Green, but war is a great leveller; they’ve lived side-by-side and have been through hell together, and as time has worn on, their friendship – and deep mutual affection – is just about the only thing that has made life bearable for both of them. The story begins in the early hours of a morning in October 1917 when Ash and his men are waiting for the final command to go over the top. Ms. Malcom brilliantly evokes the overall feelings of trepidation and despair felt in the trenches and also does a fantastic job of showing readers the strength of the bond that exists between Ash and Harry – not with words, because they can’t possibly say any of the things they feel, but rather through the actions that communicate their obvious care for one another. When Ash is severely wounded, Harry’s world almost comes to a stop, and fearing the man he loves is dead, his first thought is to invite a German bullet to end it all. But seeing the men look to him for guidance and reassurance, he can’t do it. Clinging to hope, Harry somehow finds the courage to carry on, and one month later, receives the news that Ash is alive, and is being sent home to England.
The fact that Ash lost part of one leg and is suffering from “nerve damage” (which we’d call PTSD today) are not the only things that have made it impossible for him to pick up the reins of his old life. He misses Harry desperately, and he’s full of anger and frustration at the way that those around him – most notably his parents and others of their generation – seem to want to brush the war under the carpet and go on as though nothing has changed, and he can’t bear it.
“What was it for, if everything goes on the same?”
To make things worse, his parents make it clear that they expect him to get married and settle down as soon as possible and have perfect girl in mind, Miss Olive Allen, the daughter of friends. Ash likes Olive – she’s a straightforward, no-nonsense young woman who currently works as a VAD nurse and whose outlook is very much aligned with his – but his heart belongs to someone else and Ash has no intention of getting married to anyone.
Back in London after the Armistice, Harry, like all the other soldiers returning to England, finds himself out of step with the world he’s come home to – and also out of work. He’s living with his widowed sister and two young nieces and is very conscious that Kitty’s meagre resources are stretched thin – so when she suggests he apply to his former captain for work, Harry forces himself to swallow his pride and travels to Highcliffe House in Hampshire to see if there might be any work for him in the stables.
Ash is astonished and overjoyed to see Harry again, so much so that he greets him as the friend he is, much to his father’s outrage. There’s a social distance to be maintained between master and servant and Ash and Harry can never again be what they were to each other before. Ash isn’t in a position to openly defy his father’s edict that he keep away from Harry, but he’s determined to spend time with him, and thanks to Olive’s idea that Ash should take up riding again, they do manage a few afternoons together. During those stolen hours, three years of longing and wondering and a knowledge, now, of the transience of life, propel both men towards admitting the truth of their feelings for one another – but it’s bittersweet, the knowledge that they love and are loved in return overshadowed by the knowledge that this is likely all they’re ever going to be able to have.
Sally Malcolm is a master of the angsty romance, conveying heightened emotion in a way that feels right for the mood of the story and is never overdone. The feelings Ash and Harry have for each other are so strongly portrayed that they leap off the page; tenderness, longing, connection and most of all, their unspoken love, are palpable, all skilfully created within the first few pages of the novel and sustained throughout their forbidden love affair. A real sense of foreboding seeps through the second half of the book as disaster inevitably looms closer; and when it strikes it’s a punch to the gut.
The historical setting is very well realised. The author clearly has considerable knowledge of the period and the story is very firmly grounded in the attitudes and prejudices of the time. Those prejudices extend beyond sexuality and class, however, as illustrated through the character of Olive, a young woman who, Ash realises, was liberated by the war, freed from stifling social conventions in order to do something useful. She wants to train to be a doctor, but her parents won’t hear of it, and now the war is over, she’s expected to forget her taste of freedom and return to her pre-war self, a situation experienced by countless young women at the time.
The Last Kiss is an absorbing read that will transport readers to the horrors of the battlefield and the beauty of the idyllic English countryside. Those who like their historical romance to contain more than a nod towards actual history will enjoy the setting and appreciate the author’s keen eye for detail and social observation. This is a ‘quiet’ book and the overall tone is perhaps a little sombre, but the central love affair is compelling and heartfelt, and the HEA is well-deserved.