Just as a magpie likes to swoop for glittery things to line its nest, as a historical novelist, I’m constantly on the lookout for fascinating facts and details to weave into my books to share with my readers. Beyond this Broken Sky is my second World War 2 novel and it’s set in London during the Blitz. As someone who grew up in London, I’ve always been intrigued by the Blitz and what it must have been like to live in the city during that time.
When I was a child I loved listening to my Grandma’s tales of her life as a young woman, living and working in London during the war. One story that really stayed in my mind was how she and her friend decided to move to an apartment in a swankier part of town called Pimlico, as the rents had been dramatically reduced due to the bombing raids (most of the wealthier owners and tenants having evacuated themselves to safer parts of the country at the start of the war). When they were flat-hunting they viewed two properties on adjacent squares. My grandma preferred a flat in St George’s Square but her friend wanted to move to one next door in Dolphin Square. Thankfully, my grandma got her way because the apartment they would have moved into in Dolphin Square was destroyed shortly after in a bombing raid. The fact that a previously inconsequential choice like deciding where to live could become a matter of life or death during the Blitz blew my mind, and it was something I really wanted to capture in the novel. I wanted to use Pimlico as the central location as a tribute to my grandma and when I discovered that Dolphin Square had housed a first aid centre and ambulance station during the war I couldn’t think of a better place to set my story!
While I was planning the book I paid a visit to St George’s Square and spent some time in the communal garden there. It was a very strange and somewhat eerie experience, imagining my grandma and her friend walking along those same pavements, hurrying off to work, or to the communal air raid shelter during the fathomless dark of the blackout. Like so many of her generation, she’d always been very matter of fact when recounting her wartime life but there can be no denying that it must have been a terrifying time, and putting myself in her shoes in order to write Beyond this Broken Sky was a very poignant experience.
As soon as I started researching the Blitz I was intrigued to discover that the famous ‘Blitz spirit’ wasn’t quite all it was cracked up to be. Yes, people pulled together to help each other, but there was a lot of lawlessness too, with looters taking advantage of the bombing raids to steal from homes and stores – and even bodies.
I also had no idea that the government had initially banned the use of the London Underground as a public shelter and I’d never heard the story of the storming of the sumptuous shelter in the Savoy Hotel, which came complete with its own maid service, beds and ballroom, to try and bring attention to the plight of the poorer East Enders who were initially expected to take shelter beneath tables!
Similarly, I wanted to subvert a common trope in World War 2 fiction, where the hero is a soldier. I was really interested in exploring the experience of the conscientious objectors and examining how there can be many different types of bravery. So I created the character of Joseph O’Toole, a man who saw the terrible effects the First World War had upon his father and brother, and subsequently believes passionately in saving lives rather than taking them. Discovering how conscientious objectors were shunned by large sections of society and sometimes even imprisoned during the war was a sobering experience. Ditto my discovery that several soldiers got away with little or no punishment for killing their wives while on leave, with judges showing leniency due to the sacrifices they were making for their country.
Weaving all of these details into the story of Beyond this Broken Sky was a hugely interesting experience, and I hope it gives people an equally thought-provoking and enlightening read.
Excerpt from Beyond this Broken Sky
He’s been watching her for days now, from the cover of the garden in the middle of the square. Others complain about the blackout – about the way it renders you almost blind, barely able to see a foot in front of you – but not him. He likes the way it makes everyone vulnerable – even the officious ARP wardens in their tin helmets and mock military uniforms. Their squeaking whistles and feeble torches are no match for the fathomless darkness. They’re no match for him – a proper soldier. After all, none of them have spotted him when they’ve been out on their nightly patrols, barking at people to take cover as the air-raid siren wails. He likes the way the darkness wraps itself around him like a cloak, making him the perfect hunter stalking its prey, knowing that, at any moment, he could step from the shadows and finish it. Finish her. Finish them.
Tonight, after the bombers finally left and the wail of the all-clear sounded, sending people scurrying like startled rats from the shelter, they returned to the house together. It took every sinew in his body not to reach for his gun and finish it right there, especially when they had the brass neck to stand on the front doorstep and kiss. Rage rises inside him at the memory, tightening his chest and blurring his vision. How dare they make a fool of him like that? But he isn’t the fool, he reminds himself. He’s the clever one. Because he knows how this story is going to end. And he will decide exactly when.
The first of the dawn light bruises the night sky purple and blue and the birds in the skeletal trees begin to sing. It’s time for him to go, lay low, while a Blitz-weary London rouses itself from sleep. But he’ll be back again soon. He feels for the comforting presence of his revolver on his belt beneath his coat. Yes, he’ll be back again soon to finish things.
(c) Siobhan Curham
About Beyond This Broken Sky:
1940, London: An unforgettable novel about the strength of the human spirit in the face of war and the remarkable women who put themselves in danger on the front lines during the Battle of Britain.
As a volunteer for the ambulance service, Ruby has the dangerous task of driving along pitch-dark roads during the blackout. With each survivor she pulls from the rubble, she is helping to fight back against the enemy bombers, who leave nothing but destruction in their wake.
Assigned to her crew is Joseph, who is unable to fight but will stop at nothing to save innocent lives. Because he is not in uniform, people treat him with suspicion and Ruby becomes determined to protect this brave, compassionate man who has rescued so many, and captured her heart. Even if it means making an unthinkable choice between saving her own life and risking everything for his…
2019: Recently divorced Edi feels lost and alone when she moves to London to start a new life. Until she makes a discovery, hidden beneath a loose floorboard in her attic, that reveals a secret about the people who lived there in the 1940s. As she gradually uncovers a wartime love story full of danger and betrayal, Edi becomes inspired by the heroism of one incredible woman and the legacy that can be left behind by a single act of courage…
A sweeping tale of bravery and self-sacrifice that shows that even in the midst of war, hope and love can bloom. Perfect for fans of The Alice Network, The Secret Messenger and The Lost Girls of Paris.
Order your copy online here.