The Soldier’s Dark Secret
Whenever I pick up a book by Marguerite Kaye, I know I’m going to get a well-crafted, character driven story with a slightly different focus to that found in the average historical romance – and The Soldier’s Dark Secret is exactly that. Touching and very readable, the story focuses on two emotionally damaged people struggling to live with the pain and guilt that is threatening to overwhelm them.
Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Trestain, a highly respected soldier who served as Wellington’s premier intelligence officer – resigned his commission and sold out of the army shortly after Waterloo. He has been residing with his brother Charles and his family while recuperating from injuries sustained during the battle, but he is having a difficult time adjusting to civilian life. Plagued by nightmares of one particularly harrowing experience during the war, Jack is close to exhaustion and heavily weighed down by guilt, determined to bear the burden alone. His mood swings, loss of appetite and continual fatigue have been noticed by his brother and sister-in-law who are very concerned about him. They love him and want to help, but have no idea what to do when all their overtures are repulsed and Jack seems determined to keep pushing them away.
He’s been home a few months when Celeste Marmion arrives. She is half-French and an artist of some renown who has been commissioned by Charlie to paint a series of landscapes of various aspects of the estate before he has some major renovations done. Although their first meeting does not go well, they soon strike up a cautious friendship of sorts; and Jack is both surprised – and relieved – to discover that he’s very attracted to Celeste. He hasn’t experienced feelings of desire in a very long time, and had thought it just another part of him that was irrevocably changed by his wartime experiences. He quickly discerns that Celeste has secrets of her own, and offers to help her, somewhat re-energised at the prospect of having something useful to do. The fact that it also allows him to push aside his own troubles for a time is just an added bonus.
Celeste’s life has been characterised by a distant, unemotional relationship with her mother. Over the years, Celeste has schooled herself to indifference about it, just as she has decided that she only wants casual relationships in her life as anything more than that is too much trouble and leave her open to hurt. Her mother died a year or so ago, and the last letter she sent was, to Celeste’s eye, just as cold and unemotional as the rest of their relationship. Celeste can’t help being angry – at her mother’s lack of affection and for the fact that she took her own life, leaving Celeste to feel guilty and confused as to her motives. She has come to England to undertake Charlie’s commission, but also wants to see if she can find out anything about her mother’s English family.
Celeste is initially reluctant to take up Jack’s offer of help, but knowing he can make enquiries through avenues unavailable to her, she swallows her pride and shows him her mother’s letter. She is amazed when his interpretation of the words is so different to her own, which forces her to begin to re-evaluate her mother’s actions towards her and to question everything she had believed about their relationship.
Both protagonists have to make major reassessments of themselves and their pasts in order to be able to move forward and shake themselves free of the guilt and misconceptions that threaten to swamp them. Jack’s issues seem, on the surface to be the more serious ones. He’s clearly suffering from what we would today recognise as PTSD and is almost falling apart before our eyes, while Celeste appears confident, serene and happy in her independence – albeit rather emotionally controlled. But her journey of discovery balances Jack’s – as he uncovers more and more about her background, she allows herself to fully explore the resulting emotions in a cathartic way, coming to realise that she doesn’t want to live a cold, emotionless existence. But Jack, even though he does eventually derive some degree of solace from unburdening himself to Celeste, takes longer to realise that he has to make a similar choice, and it’s a delay that almost costs him dear.
Ms. Kaye has clearly researched the historical background very thoroughly, and doesn’t sugar-coat the horrors of war or play down its after-effects on those who fought and returned home to face poverty and despair. The way she writes Jack’s condition makes it seem very real – she conveys his situation through his words, moods and body language, bringing home to the reader most effectively that, like his family, he is scared by the fact that he doesn’t know what’s happening to him or what to do about it.
Once again, I’m awed by this author’s ability to craft such an intelligent, compelling and moving story and pack it into a relatively small page-count. The writing is excellent, the plot is skilfully rendered and the romance is beautifully developed, with a lovely sensuality about it that builds slowly and deliciously as the story progresses.
The Soldier’s Dark Secret is the first of two books appearing under the title of Comrades in Arms. The second will feature Jack’s friend and colleague, Major Finlay Urquhart – whom we meet briefly here – and I’ll certainly be looking out for it later this year.