Cover image for The secret guests : a novel
Title:
The secret guests : a novel
ISBN:
9781250133014
Edition:
1st ed.
Physical Description:
291 pages ; 25 cm.
Geographic Term:
Summary:
Ahead of the German Blitz during World War II, English parents from every social class sent their children to the countryside for safety, displacing more than three million young offspring. In The Secret Guests, the British royal family takes this evacuation a step further, secretly moving the princesses to the estate of the Duke of Edenmore in "neutral" Ireland. A female English secret agent, Miss Celia Nashe, and a young Irish detective, Garda Strafford, are assigned to watch over "Ellen" and "Mary" at Clonmillis Hall. But the Irish stable hand, the housemaid, the formidable housekeeper, the Duke himself, and other Irish townspeople, some of whom lost family to English gunshots during the War of Independence, go freely about their business in and around the great house. Soon suspicions about the guests' true identities percolate, a dangerous boredom sets in for the princesses, and, within and without Clonmillis acreage, passions as well as stakes rise.
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Summary

Summary

"When you're done binge-watching The Crown , pick up this multifaceted wartime thriller."
-- Kirkus Reviews

As London endures nightly German bombings, Britain's secret service whisks the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret from England, seeking safety for the young royals on an old estate in Ireland.

Ahead of the German Blitz during World War II, English parents from every social class sent their children to the countryside for safety, displacing more than three million young offspring. In The Secret Guests, the British royal family takes this evacuation a step further, secretly moving the princesses to the estate of the Duke of Edenmore in "neutral" Ireland.

A female English secret agent, Miss Celia Nashe, and a young Irish detective, Garda Strafford, are assigned to watch over "Ellen" and "Mary" at Clonmillis Hall. But the Irish stable hand, the housemaid, the formidable housekeeper, the Duke himself, and other Irish townspeople, some of whom lost family to English gunshots during the War of Independence, go freely about their business in and around the great house. Soon suspicions about the guests' true identities percolate, a dangerous boredom sets in for the princesses, and, within and without Clonmillis acreage, passions as well as stakes rise.

Benjamin Black, who has good information that the princesses were indeed in Ireland for a time during the Blitz, draws readers into a novel as fascinating as the nascent career of Miss Nashe, as tender as the homesickness of the sisters, as intriguing as Irish-English relations during WWII, and as suspenseful and ultimately action-packed as war itself.


Author Notes

Benjamin Black is the pen name of the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville. Black's books include The Black-Eyed Blonde, Christine Falls, The Silver Swan, among others . He lives in Dublin.


Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

An intriguing premise can't save this plodding what-if historical thriller from Edgar-finalist Black (Wolf on a String), the pen name of John Banville. During the Battle of Britain, with London under steady assault from German bombers, George VI decides that his daughters, 14-year-old Elizabeth and 10-year-old Margaret, should be moved from Buckingham Palace to a place of safety. The princesses are transported in the dead of night to the neutral Republic of Ireland, where they are to live, under pseudonyms, at the Duke of Edenmore's isolated estate in County Tipperary. In exchange for that accommodation, Britain will supply Ireland with regular shipments of coal. An MI5 agent, Celia Nashe, who's charged with their protection, accompanies them. Though the identities of the girls is a closely guarded secret, Celia fears that the truth will be uncovered, placing them in peril from Irish nationalists eager to score a major propaganda coup by attacking or abducting them. A romantic subplot involving Celia fails to engage, and the anticlimactic ending disappoints. Fans of this gifted writer will hope for better next time. Agent: Ed Victor, Ed Victor Literary Agency (U.K.). (Jan.)


Guardian Review

In The Secret Guests, BW Black - AKA Benjamin Black, AKA Irish novelist John Banville - gussies up a wartime rumour of royal jiggery-pokery into a fanciful yarn that has just enough plausibility to see it home. Time was when such speculative mischief might have given them conniptions at the palace; nowadays the royals are surely too busy tearing their own reputation apart to notice a mere commoner having a dig. The story opens in London 1940 as a young girl at a tall window watches bombs fall over the city. This turns out to be the 10-year-old Princess Margaret ("she hated being 10"), at home in Buckingham Palace. Such is the danger from the blitz that Margaret's parents decide that she and her 14-year-old sister, Elizabeth, should be secretly packed off to a safe house till the coast is clear. Some bright spark chooses neutral Ireland as their bolt-hole, specifically Clonmillis House in darkest Tipperary, home of their distant relative the Duke of Edenmore. Chief operative in the plan is languid patrician Richard Lascelles, a British diplomat who negotiates a quid pro quo with the Irish government: if they agree to shelter the two princesses, Whitehall will sanction shipments of much-needed coal to Ireland. Bearing the assumed names of Mary and Ellen, the royal sisters are placed in the care of two very different protectors. One of them is Celia Nashe, a Roedean-educated MI5 agent who views this hush-hush assignment as pretty "rum". Her ambitions to be tested in the field aren't going to be satisfied by such a posting: "The Maginot Line was a long way from Tipperary." The other is Detective Garda Strafford, son of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, a detached, unflappable fellow with a Waugh-like sense of the absurd. Both are anomalies in their professions - Celia a woman in a man's world, Strafford a Protestant in a Catholic one - which might, you suppose, create an outsiders' bond, marooned together in "Ballymacbackward". And yet mutual suspicion hardens into an estrangement between them, just as it colours the wider story. Benighted Ireland, where DH Lawrence's Women in Love is a banned book, is so riven with historical resentments and grievances that there is no telling where loyalties might lie. A Major de Valera, son of Éamon, features ambiguously in the supporting cast. All Nashe and Strafford know is that the true identity of their charges must be kept close: if the IRA get wind of their presence, for example, a kidnapping could have a disastrous effect on British morale. Banville (or rather Black) is good on the contrast between the adults and the royal children, with their "grave, antique look" and haughty self-possession. You sense he has been a devotee of the Netflix series The Crown and enjoys the freedom of imagining the private feelings beneath the public front. "Mary" in particular is well drawn - inquisitive, precocious, "a practised listener at keyholes and outside bedroom doors". She fancies herself in love with the estate's saturnine gamekeeper, whose mother was allegedly murdered by the Black and Tans when he was an infant: "Maybe a tragedy like that stayed with you all your life." (It has to be said that that's remarkable empathy for a 10-year-old, and even more so for a 10-year-old who would grow up to be Princess Margaret.) It will also be her decisive intervention that lends the plot its small twist. In describing Clonmillis Hall - drab, cold, unfriendly, "a mausoleum" - Black may also have in mind the decrepit hotel at the centre of JG Farrell's Troubles, with its lowering atmosphere of dread. The Secret Guests is a nicely worked conceit without being a scintillating one. It takes a while to get going, focused upon the deep crosscurrents of mistrust among its cast and the somewhat incongruous presence of its high-born star-turns. When the plot does finally ignite, the set pieces that have been carefully prepared are rather hurried through. This saddles the book with a strange and ungainly rhythm. That might not matter: given the fathomless appetite for gossip about the House of Windsor, this little jeu d'esprit on the early life of the royals could find an enthusiastic readership.


Kirkus Review

During German bombing raids on London during World War II, the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret are secreted away to Ireland for protection.Clonmillis Hall has seen better days. A large estate in rural Ireland belonging to the Duke of Edenmore, Clonmillis, by virtue of Ireland's neutrality in the war, feels a world away from the bombs raining down on England. But during a secret meeting in Dublin, arrangements are made: King George's two young daughters need to be kept safe during the Blitz, and remote Ireland seems the perfect place. The result is a series of domestic and professional frictions of nationality, class, religion, and gender. There is Dick Lascelles, the louche, charismatic diplomat in charge of the arrangements. Detective Garda Strafford, whose Anglo-Irish background sets him somewhat apart from his countrymen, oversees the estate's security. Special Agent Celia Nashe, posing as a governess, is caught between her professional duties and being a surrogate caretaker to the serious elder princess, code-named "Ellen," and the fiery younger girl, "Mary." There is the irascible Duke and his household staff, who have varying levels of knowledge of the plot, and then there are those outside the estate who would seek to undermine the safety of everyone on it. Black (the pen name of Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville) continues his storied career in the same vein as his most recent novel, Wolf on a String (2017), a historical mystery set in Prague, though his return here to his native Ireland is a welcome one. As ever, Black's gifts of rich description and deft characterization are on display, and if the first half of the novel is more leisurely than a typical political thriller, its second half positively gallops.When you're done binge-watching The Crown, pick up this multifaceted wartime thriller. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Booklist Review

With London under attack during the Blitz, the safety of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret is of premier importance, so they are surreptitiously moved to the isolated estate of the Duke of Edenmore in the Republic of Ireland. Accompanying the girls are an MI5 agent, Celia Nashe, and an Irish detective, Garda Strafford. Nothing about this dislocation is easy. The girls, especially Margaret, are unhappy; the negotiations to keep them in a supposedly neutral country are fraught; and the prospects for keeping the princesses safe, especially in a country hostile to the British, seem unlikely. With all of that, surprisingly little happens in the first two-thirds of the book. Save Margaret, few of the characters the diffident Strafford, the dutiful Nashe do much to intrigue readers. On the fringes of the story, however, much is happening, and long-simmering hatreds, global and personal, rise to the surface, resulting in an action-packed conclusion. Black, author of the Quirke series, set in modern-day Dublin, seems more comfortable in noir territory, but his foray into royal historical mystery, while gathering steam slowly, packs a punch in the end.--Ilene Cooper Copyright 2019 Booklist


Library Journal Review

When World War II began in 1939, Operation Pied Piper evacuated almost a million children from cities to the British countryside for safety. The Blitz began in 1940, and, despite the dangers, the British royal family refused to leave the country. While the bombs fell, the family steadfastly remained in place. But what if the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, were evacuated in secret? In Black's (Even the Dead) alternate history, the princesses, accompanied by a female intelligence agent and Irish police officer, are taken into the neutral Republic of Ireland to a remote, crumbling country estate owned by a distant relative and given new identities. However, little remains secret in the Irish countryside. As the young women settle into the rural routine, speculation mounts in the area about who is in their midst and just what their potential political value might be. Black's lucid prose is the perfect foil for tangled politics, old hatreds, unsolved crimes, the threat to Irish neutrality, and the possibility of new alliances that seethe underneath. VERDICT This elegant novel will satisfy all readers who appreciate a good story, well told. [See Prepub Alert, 7/15/19.]--Penelope J.M. Klein, Edinburgh, Scotland