Archive for November, 2014

I CAN’T BEGIN TO TELL YOU by Elizabeth Buchan

‘Denmark, 1940. War has come and everyone must choose a side.

For British-born Kay Eberstern, living on her husband Bror’s country estate, the Nazi invasion and occupation of her adopted country is a time of terrible uncertainty and inner conflict.

With Bror desperate to preserve the legacy of his family home, even if it means co-existing with the enemy, Kay knows she cannot do the same. Lured by British Intelligence into a covert world of resistance and sabotage, her betrayal of Bror is complete as she puts her family in danger.

Tasked with protecting an enigmatic SOE agent, a man who cannot even tell her his name, Kay learns the art of subterfuge. From this moment on, she must risk everything for the sake of this stranger – a stranger who becomes entangled in her world in ways she never expected.

Caught on opposing sides of a war that has ripped apart a continent, will Kay and Bror ever find their way back to one another?

Elizabeth Buchan’s stunning new novel, I Can’t Begin to Tell You, is a story of bravery, broken loyalties, lies and how the power of love can bring redemption even to the darkest of places.’

It was a qualified thumbs-up from the majority of the Berwick Book Group for this novel set in Denmark in WW2.  A number of members, including Jill, particularly enjoyed the amount of research and the attention to detail – evident in the descriptions of the intricacies of morse code, or the amount of dust produced by the bombings: ‘The dust… the dust had nearly choked her. The bombing had released so much of it. It was everywhere – on surfaces, between the sheets, on window frames, sifting into everyone’s clothes, hair, nose and ears. When would they ever be properly clean again? When they came to write a history of wartime, historians must write about the dust, she thought. London was buried in the stuff and it hung in the air – minute particles of brick, stone, wood… and other more terrible things she wasn’t going to think about.’

However, the attention to detail was a real turn-off for one member:

‘For me, this is a story with potential that failed to live up to its promise. Admittedly I gave up half way through, but to read over 200 pages only to find that nothing of any significance has happened is disappointing at best. I was bored. My impression was that the novelist was more concerned to demonstrate the research she’d done than tell a good tale. I might have been interested, for instance, in the technical detail of morse code but not several pages of description, and, in a similar vein, a whole page quoted, from an ostensibly real life secret manual, was simply unnecessary. The characters were neatly paired up according to sexual attraction on both sides of the North Sea: it was all very predictable and unconvincing. And, while allowing that I was reading an advance copy (typos I accept), some of the writing struck me as sloppy and careless. I also found the dialogue unconvincing especially that between the spies: the novelist seemed more concerned to relay info to the reader about this or that aspect of the situation than to depict people actually talking. Since the story is essentially about secret goings-on and espionage, there was a very disappointing lack of tension. At no point did I feel anxious or even concerned. Is this bog standard romantic fiction? Perhaps so: ‘Bror undressed her and she trembled with the daring of what she was about to do. With each garment he despatched to the floor, he paused to look. ‘You’re beautiful, Kay.’ So was he.’ Overall, I thought it was a good idea gone badly wrong unless, of course, you’re looking for a totally undemanding read. But, for me, there are better novels about WW2 even in the romantic mode.’

In contrast, Martin loved the book: ‘It kept me up until 4.00am to finish. It beautifully illustrates the dilemma for individuals and families facing war and oppression. Do you grit your teeth and lay low until it all passes over? Or do you fight knowing that you not only endanger your own life but those of friends, neighbours and family? When these fault lines go through a family then each decision affects not only the problem (the enemy) but also your relationships with other family members with often severe consequences. The fractured nature of the British intelligence services was very well drawn and I noticed she cited “Between Silk and Cyanide” as one of her sources; this is another remarkable and highly recommended book with the one annoying caveat that it is written by a man who was always right, in his own judgement anyway. The fossilisation of senior people in any sphere is well known but had devastating consequences in military areas when officers trained in sabres and horses sent their troops against tanks and machine guns.’

I couldn’t attend our November meeting and my thanks go to Jill for stepping in.  I missed my monthly dose of good beer and erudite discussion, and I’m looking forward to the next one when the focus is on a suitably gothic tale for a dark, December evening:  ‘The Quick’ by Lauren Owen.

Ann Coburn


About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit

November 2014
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