Book review: The Night Raid by Clare Harvey
Two women working in a munitions factory must face up to secrets from the past in a moving new saga from ex-Army wife turned author Clare Harvey.
Harvey’s thrilling tales of wartime romance and drama – which include The Gunner Girl and The English Agent – are inspired by her mother-in-law’s experiences during the Second World War and were written while her own husband was on active service in Afghanistan.
The other inspiration for Harvey’s novels comes from the real-life women who played vital roles during the years of conflict. In The English Agent, we met Vera Atkins, the intelligence officer who helped to run the French Section of the SOE in London, and this drama-packed new story revolves around celebrated war artist Dame Laura Knight.
Along with her portrait painter husband Harold Knight, Dame Laura was a member of the famous Cornish artists’ colony known as the Newlyn School. She was among the most successful and popular painters in the country, and her success in the male-dominated British art establishment paved the way for greater status and recognition for women artists.
The Night Raid imagines Dame Laura returning to her home town of Nottingham on a fictional commission from the War Artists’ Advisory Committee to paint propaganda pictures of women at work in the Royal Ordnance Factory.
What she doesn’t reckon on is becoming immersed in the troubled lives of two women, and fighting painful, hidden memories from her own past.
When Dame Laura Knight heads off to Nottingham on her new commission, she leaves behind her disgruntled husband Harold whose work as a portrait painter of ‘the great and the good’ has effectively dried up during the long war years.
At first she relishes the opportunity for a nostalgia trip but when she starts work on a portrait of two particular women, Violet Smith and her co-worker Zelah Fitzlord, memories begin to resurface that she has spent half a lifetime trying to forget.
Violet is an industrial conscript and her wages help support a sprawling family back home in Kent. But working in munitions also means freedom from a small town mentality, and the disappointment of a first love which turned sour when she discovered her boyfriend was a liar and a cheat.
For Zelah, too, working in the gun factory means a welcome escape. Her dreams for the future were dashed in the carnage of the Plymouth Blitz and she has found refuge in the numbing repetition of manual work.
But, just like war artist Laura, Violet and Zelah have hidden secrets, mistakes that they have tried to leave behind with their old selves. Will the night shift keep these women’s secrets, or will the past explode into the present and change all of their lives forever?
Harvey’s aim is to ‘try to create characters that contain as much “truth” within them as possible’ and here she pays homage to the intriguing life of Dame Laura Knight, exploring real-life personal events through the prism of an entirely fictional but fascinating commission.
The Night Raid brings home the everyday dangers of munitions work and the social constraints on the women who worked in the factories as well as delivering a gripping story packed with mystery, drama and tragedy, and celebrating the powerful bonds of friendship and the enduring hope of a second chance at happiness.
An inspirational story for dark winter nights…
(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £7.99)