Review: The Storms of War / The Edge of the Fall by Kate Williams

The de Witt family saga is a series of books by the acclaimed historian Kate Williams. Likened to Downton Abbey and Atonement the first two novels in the trilogy (the third is yet to come) follow the de Witt family, German of origin now living in England, detailing their experiences during the Great War, and its subsequent aftermath.

The Storms of War

In the idyllic early summer of 1914, life is good for the de Witt family. Rudolf and Verena are planning the wedding of their daughter, Emmeline, while their eldest son Arthur is studying in Paris and Tom is just back from his first term at Cambridge. Celia, the youngest of the de Witt children, is on the brink of adulthood, and secretly dreams of escaping her carefully mapped out future and exploring the world.

But the onslaught of war changes everything and soon the de Witts find themselves sidelined and in danger of losing everything they hold dear. As Celia struggles to make sense of the changing world around her, she lies about her age to join the war effort and finds herself embroiled in a complex plot that puts her and those she loves in danger.

With gripping detail and brilliant empathy, Kate Williams tells the story of Celia and her family as they are shunned by a society that previously embraced them, torn apart by sorrow, and buffeted and changed by the storms of war.  

The First World War is a period of history that I find fascinating, and The Storms of War serves to feed that fascination. It's incredibly detailed - from the horror of war to the decline of the aristocracy Kate Williams' experience as a historian shines through. However, in terms of characterisation I really didn't feel for any of the characters. The only one I felt any kind of empathy for was Michael and I wish we'd had a few more chapters from his perspective. The main protagonist is Celia, youngest of the De Witt family. Although the majority of the story is told from her perspective I couldn't help but find her a little selfish, and very naive for her age. I know she was only seventeen, but ambulance driving aside she could just as easily have been twelve. The relationship between her and Tom was an odd one - I initially got a sort of Dickon/Mary from the Secret Garden vibe from them - but of course war changes everything and by the end of the novel I was left wondering whether they would ever work things out. The Storms of War is a compelling narrative packed with historical detail - war was a storm to be weathered and no one emerges unscathed.

The Edge of the Fall

In the aftermath of the Great War, the de Witt family are struggling to piece together the shattered fragments of their lives.

Rudolf and his wife Verena, still reeling from the loss of their second son, don't know how to function in the post-war world. Stoneythorpe Hall has become an empty shell with no servants to ensure its upkeep.

Celia, the de Witt's youngest daughter, is still desperate to spread her wings and see more of the world. To escape Stoneythorpe and the painful secrets that lie there, she moves to London and embraces life and love in the Roaring Twenties
Eager to find out what happened to Celia and her family next, I dived straight into the sequel The Edge of the Fall. Again there is plenty of detail, and I learnt about things I never knew before despite my history degree (such as the creepy porcelain masks scarred veterans were made to wear). Like the latter episodes of Downton - which this series is continually likened to - war is over, the skirts are shorter and we're hurtling into the 1920s. Yet again though I cared little for Celia. She's so passive, spending her time worrying and complaining - just letting things happen to her. Her cousin Louisa isn't much better. The narrative I enjoyed the most was that from the perspective of the tormented Arthur, the one who eventually gives us the truth about what happened to Lousia. Characters aside the plot of this novel is really well thought out, packed with twists and surprises. I have to admit that I committed the most grievous of reading sins at one point - I was so worried about the fate of one particular character that i just had to read ahead! There were plenty of loose ends and unanswered questions at the end of this novel to leave me eagerly anticipating the next installment of the De Witt family saga. Don't leave me hanging too long Kate!


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