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Thursday, January 9, 2020

Book Review: The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black

During WWII, the King and Queen of England stayed put in Buckingham Palace amidst the Blitz, to show solidarity with their people in the chaos, terror, and uncertainty. But, were they willing to put the lives of their young daughters at risk? Particularly when they're in direct line for the throne? Mr. Black (pen name of the award-winning author John Banville) has heard a story that they did not. And he's here imagined what might have happened.

"Ellen" and "Mary" are spirited West to Ireland in the care of secret agent Celia Nashe, to the crumbling manor house of a Duke, a relative of the Queen Mother's. An Irish detective, Strafford, is also in attendance to watch over the girls. Ireland is neutral in WWII, and Canada is too far away given U-Boat accuracy (Australia much worse) and even though Irish-English relations are still quite raw from the Irish War for Independence just 20 years earlier, it seems like the best of several bad options. So off they go. Mary gets into scrapes and is nosy and secretive, while Ellen tries to maintain a stoic outlook, riding her horse and behaving herself. Celia is bored and hoping the handsome diplomat will return. Stafford is busy reading everything he can get his hands on. The Duke and his household staff both try to get on with everyday life and yet also can't help but gossip. And gossip could well be the downfall of everything. Can you imagine if the IRA managed to kidnap the future Queen? Well, they can! It's better than Hitler, but not by much. Celia and Strafford have more on their plates than they initially bargained for and this sleepy country estate harbors more than dust motes and boredom.

The book is very atmospheric and creepy for a large part of it, and towards the end it quickly turns thrilling (with the added fun detail that our narrator through those scenes is also deathly ill with the flu while all the shit is hitting the fan). I enjoyed the book thoroughly and wish it were twice as long! Zipped through it in just a couple of days. I will be looking for more of Mr. Black/Banville's books.

This book is published by Henry Holt, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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