The Last Telegram
Born and bred just steps from a silk mill—the family business—Liz Trenow knows about what she writes in her commendable debut novel, The Last Telegram, an engrossing, well-paced story reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s stunner Atonement.
Set largely in 1940s England, The Last Telegram is told in flashback as an elderly Lily Verner remembers the people and events that shaped her life, a life lived among millworkers, colored by war, and surrounded by love, drama, pain, loss, and, finally, forgiveness.
Trenow has followed the golden rule for authors by writing about what she knows. As the daughter and sister of millworkers, she grew up next to the family silk mill. Trained as a journalist, Trenow has expertly combined in The Last Telegram her family history and her experience as a reporter, crafting a well-woven story dotted with richly drawn characters and an evocative sense of place and time.
Like Trenow herself, Lily Verner is drawn into the mill by a sense of responsibility rather than any kind of innate allure. A series of events—some brought on by the effects of war, some the result of her own decisions—eventually puts Lily in charge of the family business. In time, she is forced to make a decision that may—or may not—have profound effects.
Through various twists and turns, we follow Lily as she matures from an ambitious girl with fantasies of glamorous jobs and world travels into a savvy businesswoman who is forced to deal with the sometimes ugly realities of the real world. The Last Telegram is at its essence a coming-of-age story, full of all the drama and heartache that one might expect. Although the novel could very easily descend into cliché (its forbidden-love angle is reminiscent of the young adult classic Summer of My German Soldier), Trenow does an excellent job throwing some curve balls to keep the story from becoming predictable. Plots and subplots combine to create a colorful and largely believable tapestry of Lily’s life, as well as the lives of those around her.
This page-turner is not flawless, though. Trenow’s writing, usually spot on, can at times veer into violet if not purple prose, as when she writes “A new tear overflowed, tickled down her cheek, and came to rest in a dimple.” Some clunky and heavy-handed lines, designed to lure the reader to the next chapter, instead land with a thud, feeling manipulative and cheap. Some word choices feel anachronistic and inappropriate for a book set largely during World War II.
In addition, the timeline is at times a confusing jumble. Rarely does the author provide any specific dates, leaving the reader to wonder, for instance, whether a particular event happened before, during, or after, say, the London Blitz of 1940–41. Chapter openers, ostensibly written by one of the main characters, continue to appear even after he is killed, with mentions of dates and events that appear to have taken place after his death. Readers who are military history buffs may find this aspect annoying at best.
Finally, the book’s ridiculously contrived subtitle (“A novel of what saves us”) seems to strive to force the reader into a particular mindset. Not only is it manipulative, but it is unnecessary. Trenow has done such a fine job of working the reader herself, like an expert potter throwing clay. The silly subtitle is an over-the-top piece of stagecraft that detracts from the author’s own work.
In the end, however, these flaws are minor and largely inconsequential. The Last Telegram is thoughtful, elegant, and sensitive. Trenow provides a fascinating glimpse not only into life during wartime but of life in a silk mill, a unique aspect that helps makes the book feel fresh and compelling. She has drawn characters that will stick with the reader long after the last page is read, long after the book is closed, clutched to one’s chest as something dear. Trenow has given us a treasure, and readers will well look forward to her next book.
April 2013, Sourcebooks/Landmark
$14.99, trade paperback, 393 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen