Review: The Passing Bells

The Passing BellsPhillip Rock, The Passing Bells

In the summer of 1914, the aristocratic Grevilles of Abingdon Pryory are relatively carefree, except for the usual problems of their class: son and heir Charles is in love with an unsuitable woman, daughter Alexandra is about to begin her first London Season, and brash American cousin Martin Rilke is visiting from Chicago. So when a duke in faraway Austria is assassinated by a Serbian revolutionary, neither the Grevilles nor their friends believe that the event will have any effect on them. Yet as the conflict escalates into a full-scale war, the Grevilles’ lives are changed forever as Charles joins the army and Alexandra volunteers as a nurse. This novel follows several characters, from Lord Greville down to housemaid Ivy Thaxton, as they experience the shock and horror of World War I.

“Downton Abbey” fan that I am, I couldn’t resist this historical novel about WWI. I was very impressed by the way historical information was embedded into the narrative; while there are a few infodumps, they’re largely unobtrusive. For example, the American cousin is a newspaper man trying to do a story about the war, but his fellow journalists have to explain the background of the European conflict to him. I also liked that the book follows a variety of characters with different perspectives on the war. The young people are enthusiastic and overflowing with patriotism at first, but most of them are quickly disillusioned. Senior military officers berate the stupidity that lost so many lives needlessly at the Somme. The women experience the pain of losing their loved ones, but they also find new and useful work that gives their lives a new direction. All that said, I never became fully gripped by the story; because the novel is so focused on the war, it somewhat neglects character development and relationships. Overall, this is a solid historical fiction novel, and I’d recommend it to fans of the period, but I didn’t love it.

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