We'll Never Tell Them by Fiorella de Maria
This novel tells the stories of two women, Kristjana and Liljana. Liljana is the illegitimate daughter of a mostly crazy woman living on Malta at the end of 1800s. Liljana's childhood is hard because of her unstable home life which makes complications in her school life. Her mother is finally taken away and Liljana begins the life of a Dickensian orphan, becoming an unwanted servant in an upper-middle class household. That situation goes poorly thanks to the shrewish woman of the house. She unjustly accuses Liljana of steal a book from their library. Liljana is carted off to the police where she is horribly abused in the hopes of getting her to sign a confession. The husband shows up and realizes how much trouble she is in and goes to save her. He and a doctor decide to send Liljana off to an English boarding school where she'll have a chance at a good education and a better life. Things go better (or as well as they can at an English boarding school) until World War I breaks out. Liljana becomes a nurse and winds up at a hospital in Malta, where she meets a patient she truly loves.
The other woman, Kristjana, is also Maltese and lives in modern-day England. Her boyfriend accepts a position at an American university. She's not happy with that or how her life is going in general, so she decides to run away. She quits her job, throws away her cell phone, and gets on a flight to Jerusalem. There she works as a nurse to cover her expenses and she meets Leo, the 90-something year-old son of Liljana. Leo is dying of cancer and needs someone sympathetic to care for him. The head nurse naturally connects two Maltese people. Leo tells the story of his mother to Kristjana. She is tempted to wallow in the century-old story rather than deal with her own problems.
The two women make an interesting comparison. Liljana is swept along by events but her quiet reserve belies her steely resolve--she tries to hide her mother's madness from the other school children and she resolutely refuses to sign the confession. A lot of things happen to her but she still has her own will. Kristjana seems more willful and in control--she drops everything to go off on her own. But she has no real plan and is ready enough to fade passively into the crowds of Jerusalem and into Liljana's story rather than determine her own life. The boyfriend reaches out through email but she only checks it once in a while and doesn't know how to respond. Not a lot happens to her and she struggles to find what she should do.
The book does a wonderful job depicting the horrors of World War I, and not just the madness of the battlefields. The hard life back home and in the hospitals is fascinating. Liljana is an interesting character and her journey from an unloving start is always interesting if not always happy.
This book was given to me as a review copy in e-book format by Ignatius Press. All they asked for in return was a review. The opinions expressed are my own.