If I Could Tell You: A Novel

Paperback | February 28, 2017

byElizabeth Wilhide

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Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale meets Anna Karenina, a vivid and captivating novel of love, war, and the resilience of one woman's spirit 
 
England, 1939: Julia Compton has a beautifully well-ordered life. Once a promising pianist, she now has a handsome husband, a young son she adores, and a housekeeper who takes care of her comfortable home. Then, on the eve of war, a film crew arrives in her coastal town. She falls in love.
 
The consequences are devastating. Penniless, denied access to her son, and completely unequipped to fend for herself, she finds herself adrift in wartime London with her lover, documentary filmmaker Dougie Birdsall. While Dougie seeks truth wherever he can find it, Julia finds herself lost. As the German invasion looms and bombs rain down on the city, she faces a choice—succumb to her fate, or fight to forge a new identity in the heat of war.

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From the Publisher

Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale meets Anna Karenina, a vivid and captivating novel of love, war, and the resilience of one woman's spirit    England, 1939: Julia Compton has a beautifully well-ordered life. Once a promising pianist, she now has a handsome husband, a young son she adores, and a housekeeper who takes care of her comfort...

Elizabeth Wilhide is the author of Ashenden. Born in the United States, she has lived in Britain since 1967. She has two children and lives in south London.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:320 pages, 8.3 × 5.4 × 0.9 inPublished:February 28, 2017Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0143130439

ISBN - 13:9780143130437

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London, 1944 People fell from the sky. Some spread-eagled, some twisting and flailing, others drifting down as if weightless. Face after face after face passed her by, neared then disappeared into greyness. They were angels, falling from the angel roof. She understood she was to join them. They were men and women and children. They were war dead. She understood she was war dead too and reached out her hands. Death is truth, they told her, falling. Her mouth was caked in dust. Her throat was dust. Dust was in her nose. She took a breath and it was ashes. She coughed and there were knives in her chest. She couldn't move her arms, her hands, her legs, her feet. She could move her head a little. She tried to call out but her voice was shut up in her throat. Someone else called. She heard their thin cries. It was dark. Her mother told her she needed a little colour at her neck. Her mother told her that if she'd had her opportunities when she was a girl she wouldn't have thrown them away. 'Half a pound of antimacassars,' said her mother. She was pinned. She couldn't move her hands, her arms, her legs. Dust silted her mouth and choked her. It was sunny and hot. The tide was out. She was walking down a shingle beach with a mermaid's purse in the pocket of her dress. The sea was sparkling. Something shifted, tilted, gave way. A cavity opened up, a vacancy. From above came a narrow probing beam of light. Someone groaned; something moved. She smelled gas. The light went out. She was walking down a shingle beach with a mermaid's purse in her pocket. Protect my family. Chapter One  1939 Julia Compton was frightened, of course she was. The gas masks dangling from the hallstand in their cardboard cartons - hers, her husband's, her son's and their housekeeper's - lurched her stomach every time she laid eyes on them. Obscene things, rubbery and goggle-eyed. She couldn't remember much about the previous war - she'd been too young - only the maroons banging and bursting at the end of it. That did not stop her from imagining a miasma of yellow mustard gas creeping over the town, borne inland on sea breezes, settling into the furrows of ploughed fields. That summer they all knew it was coming. The papers were full of it, the pubs and pulpits too. Appeasement had failed. Any day now the waiting would be over. Twenty years, and they'd scarcely got over the last one, people were saying. For this reason she was as relieved as everyone else when a film crew arrived from London in the last week of August and gave them all something different to talk about. The great topic of conversation was why they had come. It was a small town on an east-coast estuary with nothing noteworthy about it. Trippers passed it by routinely; amateur painters tired of hunting for subjects and didn't stay long. What could possibly interest them? Fishing, it turned out. The news was received with surprise. You caught fish, you smoked them, you sold them. No one in their right mind filmed them. Somewhat later the penny dropped. Films about fishing must feature those who made their living that way. Women were the first to realize this and the hairdresser on the high street found herself busy. 'What is it,' said Julia, 'that so attracts people to filming? Is it glamour, do you think?' The six o'clock bulletin was over - no war yet - and they'd switched off the wireless. A pleated paper fan hid the summer hearth. On the mantelshelf: a green ceramic bowl of spills for the fires they would have to light soon, a brass carriage clock, an engraved invitation on stiff white card to a yacht-club dance propped against well-dusted ornaments. Richard looked up from the newspaper and lamplight glanced off his face. These days she often forgot how handsome her husband was - it was the same as the mantelshelf ornaments, familiarity cloaking their original appeal - but on this occasion it struck her as if she were seeing it for the very first time, as if he were a rare prize displayed in a shop window alongside bric-a-brac. He was nearing forty, eight years older than her, and age, which would eventually dim and blur her slight, dark prettiness, was only maturing his good looks, confirming them with a few crow's feet and a distinguished scattering of grey. Beauty was unfair that way: it treated men and women differently. The matinee idol, her mother had called him. He was a solicitor and oddly lacking in vanity. She set down her sherry glass on a leather-topped coaster. 'Peter's been down at the quayside all afternoon watching them, along with half the town.'  Their son Peter was nine. 'In his case, I suspect it's the mechanics of it.' 'The train-set aspect?' 'You have to admit it's rather impressive kit they've got.' She laughed. 'You're just as bad as he is.' He put the newspaper to one side. 'I think I might have secured a counsel for Perry Clayton.' Two months ago Perry Clayton, who worked in the smokehouse on Brewer Street, had got into a brawl with a man who was sleeping with his wife and beaten him so badly he later died of his injuries. He was currently on remand awaiting trial at the assizes. 'That's good,' said Julia. Harry, their housekeeper, came in to announce dinner was ready. Peter's footsteps pounded down the stairs as they went into the hallway. 'Walk, don't run,' Richard said to him. 'How many times have I told you? Don't they teach you that at school?' By the time they sat down at the table, her husband's appearance had regained its customary normality. A phrase occurred to her: 'the institution of marriage'. She slipped her napkin out of its bone ring. Julia tidied up the clothes her son had left on the floor. 'Have you brushed your teeth?' 'Yes, Madre,' said Peter. He was in his pyjamas, pushing his Hornby engine to and fro with a bare foot. 'Pop into bed then and I'll read to you.' Peter bounced on the mattress and flopped back. 'Mr Birdsall let me look through the camera.' Julia closed a drawer. 'Who's Mr Birdsall?' 'He's in charge of the filming,' said Peter. 'People who are in charge of films are called directors.' 'Are they,' said Julia. 'I hope you weren't making a nuisance of yourself.' 'Filming's ever so complicated,' said Peter. 'Like maths.' Peter was good at maths. 'Get yourself under the covers now.' She sat down on the edge of the bed and opened the book. The Story of the Treasure Seekers. 'Are you sure you want this one again?' He nodded. 'Being the adventures of the Bastable children in search of a fortune,' it said on the title page. Underneath was her name in an eight-year-old's loopy letters. Peter never seemed to tire of it. Perhaps as an only child he enjoyed imagining himself part of a large family. When he settled himself down she began to read. '"It is one of us that tells this story - but I shall not tell you which: only at the very end perhaps I will. While the story is going on you may be trying to guess, only I bet you don't. It was Oswald who first thought of looking for treasure. Oswald often thinks of very interesting things -"' A satisfied chuckle from the pillow. 'He gives the game away. Right there.' 'He does, doesn't he,' said Julia, turning a page. This part of the day belonged to her alone and she took full pleasure from it. One chapter a night was the rule but the chapters were short and she allowed herself to be talked into a second. By the end of it his breathing was even and he had stopped interrupting. Sleepiness turned the clock back a little - sometimes by as much as a year, which was when he had last willingly submitted to a goodnight kiss. Tonight he must have been especially tired because he reached up and hugged her with his thin, reedy arms, which allowed her to drink in his smell under the cursory face-wash. To be hugged by your child, was anything better than that? Or more bittersweet? For with a hug came a whole history of hugs and the reasons for hugs, along with a future when they would eventually dwindle to handshakes and pecks on the cheek. Another week and he would be back at school. Her spirits sank. All mothers whose children have been sent away to board learn to endure the highs and lows, to post their anxious love in letters and parcels, to measure out the year in half-terms and holidays. Perhaps if they had been able to have more children she wouldn't have missed him quite so much when he was away. 'You won't die like the mother in the book, will you?' said Peter. Julia knew better than to be worried by this. He was not morbid or anxious, only in search of rote reassurance. The question tended to come up at this early point in the story, before the motherless Bastables began their adventures. 'I'm not planning on it,' she said, stroking his hair, dark like hers. 'Not until you're a hundred.' 'At least.' She switched off the light. It had been a beautiful summer. Stand in the garden, stare up at the cloudless sky and you would think nothing could be wrong anywhere in the world. The next morning sun was streaming through the windows again. The house was quiet. Richard had gone to work and Peter had dashed off somewhere after breakfast. Julia was not about to interfere with the way he spent his time or tie him to her apron strings - that was bad mothering in her opinion - but still the hours to his departure counted down in her head with the same dread tick as the country's approach to war. The Broadwood lived in the drawing room where the wireless was. After instructing Harry on the day's tasks and chores - or 'conferring', as she preferred to think of it - Julia selected a score from the sheet music in the canterbury and sat down to play. 'La CathŽdrale engloutie'. It had to be said it wasn't one of Richard's favourites. He was more of a Bach man. Debussy was deceptive. The refusal of the harmonies to resolve, the blurred, sonorous bass notes, the layers of voices, masked precision, each sound occupying its own rightful place. The piece demanded technique, control. Within a chord it was often necessary to play one note more strongly than the others to bring out the meaning, and the pedalling had to be exact, never forced. 'The art of pedalling is a kind of breathing,' so Debussy had said, and her tutor had often quoted. Then and only then you saw the scenes hidden in the music, heard the bells of the drowned cathedral ringing under the water, an elegy for lost faith or a testament to faith's survival; she was never sure. When she reached the tolling end she began all over again, the watery notes sliding under her fingers. 'Mrs C? Mrs C?' Lost in music, Julia raised her head. Harry was in the doorway, smudges on her apron, thick stockings rolled down over garters. The old blind dog bumbled after her, banging into things. Today he was wearing a dressing on his head: this was the housekeeper's doing and would soon be banged off. 'You're wanted on the telephone.' Like many women of her generation, Harry regarded a ringing telephone in the same grave light as a telegram, and this was reflected in her tone. (Harry's preferred form of communication was on the astral plane; she was a spiritualist.) 'Oh, sorry, I didn't hear.' 'It's Mrs Spencer.' Julia went out into the hall, with its wallpaper of tawny leaves and beeswaxed banister. Of all their circle of acquaintances, Fiona Spencer was the one she counted as a true friend, without entirely approving of her, it had to be said. Four years ago her husband had dropped dead one Sunday afternoon while washing his Wolseley. Since then she had taken on the draper's shop in town; a rather surprising step for someone of her class, means and background was the local opinion. Then there were the rumours of Geoffrey's philandering, which seemed to indicate some failing on her part, either in provoking the infidelities or in putting up with them. To which must be added the mildly notorious behaviour of her children, that of the elder daughter, Ginny, in particular. All the same, Julia couldn't resist Fiona's vitality. She was the salt in her life. They also had the connection that they had both married older men, a fact that somehow made their own ten-year age difference less significant.   'Darling,' said Fiona, when she picked up the receiver. There was a pause as a match was struck, then a swift exhalation. 'I was wondering if I could entice you out today? Such glorious weather, pity not to make the most of it.' 'What about the shop?' said Julia. 'Early closing.' 'Surely that's Wednesday?' Today was Monday. 'In my shop it's whichever day I choose.' Julia laughed. 'Seriously,' said Fiona, 'Miss Simmons will hold the fort. She's been dying for the chance to demonstrate her superior knowledge of cretonne.' 'What did you have in mind?' 'I thought we might have a little picnic down by the Martello tower.' Julia weighed options. It would mean she would miss Peter when he came home for lunch. On the other hand, when he did he would eat as fast as possible and say as little as possible before scampering out again. Long hours stretched ahead. 'Yes, why not? That would be lovely. What shall I bring?' 'Nothing. My suggestion, my treat.' The tide was out, far out, and the sky was a strong, clear blue with wisps of cloud towards the horizon. They walked along a path through the salt marshes towards the beach, past shirring reeds, clumps of purple sea lavender and shrubby sea purslane. Down on the flats by the estuary, redshanks probed their spiny bills into the drying mud and a man dredged for cockles. All along the shingle the groynes were exposed, the wooden posts, some rotten and leaning, like the serried rows of teeth in the gaping mouth of a vast marine creature. Over on the hill to the north were six black cannons, remnants of another war, a threatened invasion over a century and a half ago. Gulls screamed and swooped. 'Oh, look, here's a mermaid's purse,' said Julia, bending down. Mermaid's purse: the seedpod of a dogfish. The small matt-black pouch, which was ugly and vaguely menacing, had a pair of thin curving prongs at either end. Such finds were precious to her, tokens of good fortune, as were holey stones. She picked it up from the shingle, put it in her pocket and made a wish: Protect my family.

Bookclub Guide

1. Why does Wilhide begin If I Could Tell You with the scene of the bombing? What was your reaction? Did you understand what was happening?2. The title of the novel is from a poem of the same name by W. H. Auden, a portion of which Wilhide includes as a preface to the book. Having read the novel, what is the significance of those three lines? 3. When her husband, Richard, discovers her affair, Julia loses everything. Do you believe Dougie is worth the sacrifice? Does Julia? Does her opinion change at any point in the novel?4. Britain’s ‘stiff upper lip’ during the London Blitz was legendary and still informs the popular view of the British people. How do you think you would have behaved if you had been in Julia’s situation?5. Julia repeatedly thinks to herself: ‘Protect my family.’ When does this phrase appear in the novel? What does she mean? In which ways does she or doesn’t she protect her family?6. Mrs. Hoffmann tells Julia that her own husband was ‘not what you might call faithful, but dead loyal just the same’ (p. 288). What is the difference? 7. Julia’s friendships with other women in the novel are complicated and shift over the course of the story. Who are the key female figures? What is their influence on Julia? 8. Do you believe it’s possible to be monogamous for one’s entire life? 9. What does Julia learn about herself from her relationship with Dougie? What does he learn from her?10. If you were to cast If I Could Tell You as a movie, who would you cast as Dougie and Julia? 11. Reread Julia and Dougie’s conversation in the final pages of the novel. What is Julia referring to in the final line when she thinks, ‘She had work to do’ (p. 309)?  

Editorial Reviews

“If I Could Tell You is a marvelous work of historical fiction, beautifully crafted and inhabited by morally complex and fully realized characters. It’s one of best novels I’ve read this year, compelling, immersive, and utterly impossible to put down.”—Jennifer Chiaverini, New York Times bestselling author of Fates and Traitors and Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker   “A searing recollection of an era of terror when as the author puts it, ‘people fell out of the sky.’”—Washington Times“While comparisons to Anna Karenina could be made, Julia is made of stronger stuff, and eventually, she crafts a useful life and is able to discover some measure of peace. The author’s careful attention to period detail, complemented by clean prose, is a special strength of this book. The effects of wartime ruin are vividly rendered, and one can almost taste the dust falling through the stairs during bombing raids.”—Booklist (Starred Review)“Readers who enjoy introspective and morally ambiguous tales such as Jojo Moyes’s The Last Letter from Your Lover and Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife will want to pick up this tale from a promising writer . . . Wilhide delves deep into the human psyche, especially when it comes to loving and losing.”—Library Journal"Heart-wrenching . . .Wilhide creates a closely detailed, finely shaded portrayal of love and war."—Kirkus Reviews “If I Could Tell You is a beautifully composed work of historical fiction, its atmospheric lyricism a testimony to the obvious skills of the author, who evokes Britain’s past with honesty and feeling.”—Historical Novels Review“Intoxicating.”—The Times (London)“A heartrending story of passion and loss, beautifully crafted with finely drawn characters and wonderful detail.”—Mary-Rose MacColl, internationally bestselling author of In Falling Snow"Vivid, candid, engaging. So honest."—Helen Dunmore, author of Exposure“Shades of Brief Encounter surround this wonderful, clear-eyed story set in the London blitz. As war devastates the city, love tears a woman’s life apart. The story of Julia, a woman undone by her affair, is both realistic and utterly heart wrenching.”—Jane Thynne, author of The Pursuit of Pearls“Elizabeth Wilhide writes with a historian's eye and a storyteller's grace. In If I Could Tell You, she transports readers from pre-war Britain to the Blitz and beyond, showing us how love, lust, and ultimately family can guide the heart even through the most difficult times. I fell in love with this perfectly executed take on the love triangle and the tragic heroine who turns out to be more than she ever imagined.”—Karin Tanabe, author of The Gilded Years"Unflinching, excellent...Wartime Britain has been rarely so skillfully evoked."—Daily Mail (UK)"Beautifully observed and written."—Woman and Home"An elegant, absorbing tale of hope and resilience."—Sainsbury's Magazine