Book Review: When It’s Over by Barbara Ridley

WhenIt'sOverAbout the Book

Coming of age in Prague in the 1930s, Lena Kulkova is inspired by the left-wing activists who resist the rise of fascism. She meets Otto, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, and follows him to Paris to work for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. As the war in Spain ends and a far greater war engulfs the continent, Lena gets stuck in Paris with no news from her Jewish family, including her beloved baby sister, left behind in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. When Lena and Otto are finally reunited, the safe haven Lena has hoped for doesn’t last long. As the war continues, she yearns to be reunited with her sister. Based on a true story, When It’s Over is a moving, resonant, and timely read about the lives of war refugees, dramatic political changes, and the importance of family, love, and hope.

Format: ebook (356 pp.), Paperback (350 pp.) Publisher: She Writes Press
Published: 26th Sep 2017                                      Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

I’ve read a lot of historical fiction set in WW2, and, to be frank, I’ll probably never tire of it. However, it’s always refreshing to get a new angle and this novel delivers it.  It opens in Prague and focuses on the experiences of a family of Czech Jews. As the author explains in her afterword, the book is a work of fiction but based on the experiences of her parents.  The narrative switches back and forth in time covering the period 1938 to 1944. The reader is transported from pre-war Prague, to occupied Paris and to England  during the period of the Blitz.

The story focuses on Lena Kulkova, intelligent and independent-minded, who joins the left-wing movements active in pre-war Prague, much to the anger of her father. She forms a close friendship with a group of like-minded individuals, including the idealistic and charismatic Otto. Through Otto, Lena becomes involved in intelligence work and as the threat of war grows, she follows Otto to Paris to continue this work, leaving her father, mother, brother and young sister in Prague. This is a decision that will come to haunt Lena once the Nazis occupy Czechoslovakia and she finds herself alone in Paris, unable either to follow Otto to safety in England or return to help her family. Eventually, Lena does escape to England where she joins a community of Czech exiles given refuge by a socialist sympathiser.

It is difficult now to imagine the scale of displacement that took place during this period, as people sought refuge in one country after another, dependent on charity from others and never knowing if or when they might return to their homeland. Through Lena’s experiences, the author conveys this sense of displacement, the challenge of having to survive on your own in a strange country, the agony of separation from your family, potentially the object of suspicion or worse and starved of news of what is happening to those left behind.

The book charts the complex relationship between Otto and Lena which is never conventional and experiences many stresses and strains over the years. Although Lena yearns for news of her mother and sister and worries that her actions may have unwittingly exposed them to danger, her feelings about returning to Czechoslovakia become more complicated. She grows to like England, to admire the spirit of its people, their resilience during the Blitz and determination to, if you like, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

Lena…felt the promise of something else: a home away from home in this newly adopted country; a new family to stand in for hers, which was scattered and fragmented; a sanctuary in these scary times.’

The author creates a really authentic period feel, particularly in the sections set in London. There are all the things you associated with wartime England: rationing, Lyon’s Tea Rooms, dried egg, spam, the national loaf, fish paste sandwiches and tea – lots and lots of tea.

‘We carry on as if this is all normal, she thought. We do everyday things, like make the tea and find clean cups. The mundane normalcy: we have to cling to this.’

In the end, Lena chooses a different future for herself but emotional scars from her wartime experiences persist, as the very moving conclusion to the novel demonstrates. I really enjoyed When It’s Over. It’s well-written, well-structured and I found myself drawn into the story of Lena and the other characters. Even if I hadn’t known it was based on true events, it would have felt authentic and real.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, She Writes Press, in return for an honest review.

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Try something similar…Fiction: A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker (click here for my review), Non-Fiction: A Countess in Limbo by Olga Hendrikoff & Sue Carscallen (click here for my review)

BarbaraRidleyAbout the Author

Barbara writes: I was born in England but have lived in Northern California for over 30 years. I am now focused on creative writing after a successful career in nursing, which included publication of several academic articles. When It’s Over is my debut novel. My writing has appeared in Clockhouse Review, The Writers Workshop Review, Still Crazy, Ars Medica, BLYNKT and The Copperfield Review.

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