“‘The golden hour,’ Wilfred waves his hand at the sun, “…that’s when everything looks
the most beautiful, just before the sun sets. This luminous air turning everything to gold.’”
The Golden Hour
Good historical fiction, when thoroughly researched and well written, serves a purpose straight history cannot. It allows the reader to see events within the context of the time and norms then present. Doing so allows the reader to better know the era. When real people mingle with fictional characters, it helps better understand the behavior of the former. Beatriz Williams has become a master of setting a stage, populating it and providing the dialogue that helps illuminate our often forgotten past
In The Golden Hour, we get a taste of what genteel life in Europe was like before the world descended into the abyss of the Great War, and we get to live through the destruction brought on by the Second World War, when not even the sunny Bahamas were spared the darkness of that time. While this story is primarily about two women, Elfriede and Lulu, born forty-odd years apart in different worlds, it is also about a real murder in the Bahamas that occurred seventy-six years ago, and which remains unsolved.
It was the murder of Sir Harry Oakes, an American-born, Canadian gold mine owner who became a British citizen and then moved to the Bahamas in the late 1930s for tax reasons, that provided the nub for the story. We get to know the Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII and now Governor of the Bahamas, and his wife, the Duchess of Windsor, formerly the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson. The fictional heroine of the story is Lulu Randolph, an attractive young widow, a columnist for “Metropolitan,” a New York society magazine. Lulu describes the Windsors and the era, “…I imagined I might discover some clue to the essential mystery of them – the Windsors I mean – this exquisitely dressed pair of sybaritic bigots who had the power to fascinate millions…” But back to historical figures: we meet Sir Harold Christie and Mrs. Gudewill, a wealthy Canadian and her daughter Marie who is a friend of Harry Oakes’ daughter Nancy. We get to know Nancy and her husband Alfred de Marigny, who was initially charged with the murder, but then released. Beatriz’s purpose is not to solve this decades-old murder, but it serves as a focal point. It amplifies her characters, embellishes her story and makes the reader wonder about this island mystery.
We are transported from Nassau in the early 1940s to a clinic in Switzerland in 1900, back to the Bahamas, then to Germany, London, Florida, Scotland and back to Switzerland, and to the same clinic but under different circumstances. Following the birth of her son Johann in 1898, Elfriede was sent to a Swiss clinic, suffering from what we now know was Postpartum Depression. She has been there two years when we first meet her. Returning to Germany, she finds it a challenge to attract the love of her now three-year-old son. “Certain wars are best won by centimeters, stealing tiny parcels of ground from your opponent who looks elsewhere, until one day you are in possession of the whole.” That sentence serves as a metaphor for this novel, which comes to resolution as Beatriz unwinds the skein that had held it together, in an exciting and unpredictable way.
The relationship between mothers and children play a big role in the story – between Lulu and her mother who is always offstage, between Elfriede and her three children and between the nurse Charlotte and her three children: “Mothers know, don’t they?” Lulu thinks back on her mother. “They gave birth to you and suckled you and tended every inch of you. They can peer straight through your eyes and part the drapes of your soul.” There is a lot of truth embedded in that observation. The pace quickens as the story unfolds, becoming crescendo-like as it reaches its denouement, with an end that this reader did not anticipate.
Like Anthony Trollope’s characters, Beatriz’s have a tendency to reappear in other novels. One of the main characters in this book Elfriede von Kleist appeared offstage in Along the Infinite Sea, a novel in which her son, Johann, played a role. Readers of The Golden Hour are left hoping to learn more in future novels of those we meet briefly in this one, especially Johann, Ursula and Margaret.
This article was first published on Thought of the Day.