The Lines We Leave Behind
Lake Union Publishing, 2018
I was hesitant to choose this book from the October 2018 Amazon pre-release selection as something about the description just didn’t quite align with what I somehow thought it would be. In hindsight I’m glad I picked it as I would have missed an outstanding book full of twists and turns I would never have imagined otherwise getting involved with.
The basic premise of the book is what happens to someone who has found themselves living with two identities that are incompatible with each other, and then has to hang one up completely with the exception of one other person who knows both. Difficult in any situation, but when the other person is well placed and manipulative and has their own hidden ghosts in the closet the challenge is multiplied.
We meet the main character in a mental institution in 1947 Oxfordshire. She is leading a relatively coddled existence sheltered away from society with only a few other patients, her psychiatrist, an orderly, and some nurses around her. In her section they are treated like people; they have individual rooms, meals are served with while linen tablecloths and some degree of hospitality, they have access to all the common areas of the house as well as a tended garden, and while the doors to their room lock behind them when they enter, all they have to do is ring a bell and the orderly comes to let them back out.. but behind another door in the former manor house is where the other, more serious cases live in a much more typical institutional setting.
The format of the book is unique, alternating scenes from her sessions with her psychiatrist, memories of the past, interactions with other patients, and the occasional glimpse into her own thoughts. Initially it’s a confusing mixture of place, time, and even people. Who is Amber, who is Maud, and how are they related to the rest of the events? What do the randomly inserted, italicized comments have to do with anything? Gradually yet cohesively it builds into a combination of action / adventure war story, mystery, and psycho-suspense genres, and appears to reach several false summits before yet more levels of the story emerge. As the book ends there are several of these false summits in rapid succession which would have worked well as the end of the book, leaving the reader with various possible outcomes to ponder, some lighter, some darker. The author appears to have chosen to want to leave the reader in a positive mood by ending with a neat tie-off and a hopeful outlook; yet just beneath the surface she has left a minor sub-plot unfinished which, had it played out fully, could have led to a very different outcome.
All in all _The Lines We Leave Behind_ was a book that sucked me in and grabbed hold in ways few books do. On my morning commute I found myself wondering about what Amber was up to almost as if she was someone I personally knew, and after getting home in the evenings I felt compelled to sit down and read for a bit before going off to do other things, and then end those early so I could read for a bit before going to bed.
Condensed story (possible spoiler…):
The basic story is of a young woman in World War 2 England who is recruited to be a secret agent in Yugoslavia. In the course of her training she and the officer who recruited her end up sleeping together. She goes off on her mission to be a link between the British and the Partisans and experiences some rather dramatic and potentially disturbing events – including being captured and raped by a different militia group and finding the body of one of her training companions after the companion had been tortured and killed. At the successful completion of her mission as the war winds down she is sent back to England and left on her own to return to living with her parents out in the countryside and working, first as a field laborer and then in a bank. Her parents and friends had been told she had done her war service as a radio operator at a base in Cairo, and she was forbidden to talk to them or anyone else about what she had actually done or experienced. In their eyes she had gone off to an exotic and sun-drenched place of relative safety and spent her off hours at cocktail parties and playing tennis while they were barely making it through cold and wet conditions with limited resources and constantly concerned about German attacks.
Eventually the recruiter, who was also her handler during the operation, gets back in touch and she finds that she is strongly attracted to him both romantically and because she can talk with him about her experiences, he feels similarly, and they get married. She starts to settle a bit into the expected life of an intelligence officer’s wife living in London amongst his friends and their wives, then as she is expecting the birth of their first child she uncovers that her husband had been a double agent also working with the Germans and was directly responsible for the deaths of some of her erstwhile colleagues and friends in Yugoslavia based on the information she had sent back to him… and realizes that she can’t live with him anymore. During the confrontation she begins to go into labor and her husband calls a doctor, and while the doctor is on the way he pulls a knife and starts to cut himself. She tries to stop him, and as the doctor comes in he finds her on top of her wounded husband holding a bloody knife, and he injects her with a tranquilizer… after which she wakes up in a mental institution remembering nearly nothing and being told that as an attempted murderer she is a threat to society.
Through therapy she begins to piece things back together and her therapist and attorney have her cleared of all charges once they re-open the details of the case and realize what transpired was an attempted suicide by the father, but on the day she is to be released a local boy sneaks into the garden of the institution and sets the birdhouse in it on fire. She smells the burning birds which she had been the primary caretaker of, and immediately recalls an episode in Yugoslavia and rushes out. The boy taunts her with comments about her dead friends, and she seizes a shovel that is nearby and starts to beat him with it. Realizing what she has nearly done and that all hopes of a release have now vanished, she finds a broken bottle and tries to cut her wrists, but is restrained before she can succeed in that and finds herself essentially given a life sentence in mental institutions. Recognizing that it was her own lack of control she retreats into herself.
By the 1990’s she is seen as a bit odd and eccentric but no longer dangerous to anyone, and is in more of a group home environment when she sees images of the siege of Sarajevo on the news. Her latent secret agent wakes up and her memories of that period come flooding back, and as she suddenly wonders how that boy knew about the smell of burning birds and specific names to goad her with she recognizes that her (ex) husband had killed (or had killed) everyone else who could have known about his double agent activities but wasn’t willing to kill her, so he pulled strings and created a plot to have her locked away in institutions where no one would believe what she said anyway.
In a somewhat believable happy ending to an otherwise rather tragic story, a social worker dealing with young Bosnian refugees is a friend of the one who is working with the older woman, and they realize that the little old lady understands the refugees language. They begin having her spend time with the refugees on a weekly basis, mainly as a translator, and through that she becomes friends with some of them.. And the woman she once was responds to the companionship and sounds of her adopted language and the stories of suffering in places she once knew well by rekindling an interest in life and a willingness to start again.
Lest the book seem overly dark and brooding, most of it is lighter fare – descriptions of selected incidents during her recruitment and training; living and fighting with the Partisans; preparing for a wedding in postwar London; daily occurrences in a mental institution, ….