Fiction Review by Sheila Munro

Kathy Page, Dear Evelyn (Hamilton: Biblioasis, 2018). Paperbound, 310 pp., $19.95.

Dear EvelynKathy Page’s prize-winning eighth novel, Dear Evelyn, is ambitious in scope, and daring in subject matter. The novel begins in the aftermath of WWI in England, and spans the remainder of the twentieth century. It tells the story of the love and strife within a marriage impacted by WWII, the lean times that immediately followed, and the social upheavals of the sixties and beyond.

Harry Miles is a sensitive, bookish poetry lover who hopes to become a writer one day; Evelyn Hill, beautiful, energetic, headstrong, is the shame-filled daughter of an alcoholic father. On the eve of WWII their lives collide on the steps of London’s Battersea Public Library, a refuge for both of them (literature, and poetry in particular, with its power to sustain and even transform lives, is an important theme throughout the novel). After walking her home, Harry falls madly in love, while Evelyn is happy if less infatuated; and so begins a romance that will play out over the next seventy-odd years, as their brief courtship leads to marriage and parenthood.

War, with all its separations, horrors, and disillusionment, is central to the first half of the novel. When Harry was still a schoolboy, his English teacher, a one-eyed and slightly crazed veteran of the Great War, had criticized the poetry glorifying war, and told his students, some of whom would die in WWII, to read the anti-war poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Stoically, when the next war begins, Harry knows he must “go in,” and imagines the terrible things that will happen, all the “millions who will die.” After he and Evelyn narrowly survive the Blitz, Harry ships overseas, eventually joining the African Campaign, while Evelyn and the couple’s infant daughter are billeted in the countryside. The scenes of death and destruction Harry witnesses, the terrible randomness of it all, is riveting and poignant, while the illness and hardship that beset Evelyn and her baby are unforgettable as well.

Harry’s letters to Evelyn during their wartime separation are a kind of centerpiece to the novel, vivid in their descriptions, and telling in what they reveal about the trajectory of love in a marriage, Page’s theme in the novel’s second half. His early letters are exuberant and chatty, full of love and longing for his wife, the later ones flat and exhausted sounding, as the realities of war grind down those initial feelings. By the close of the war, Harry has only the memory of passionate love, and the belief he will feel it again.

While the subject material of the first half of the book, with its backdrop of war, is more dramatic than the domestic narrative that follows, the story of Harry and Evelyn’s long and often fraught marriage is just as compelling in its own way. Here, Page’s narrative technique takes giant leaps over years, even decades, to land upon one finely wrought domestic scene after another. We witness Evelyn’s insistence on some beautiful but hugely expensive curtain fabric for their first home, her reaction to reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, an argument that erupts out of nowhere, a daughter gone missing in a department store—scenes with verisimilitude, that capture real life.

The Mediterranean cruise the couple takes in middle age is a reckoning of sorts, and wonderfully evocative in exposing the effects it has on each of them. The sexually explicit frescos Evelyn sees while wandering the ruins of Pompeii leave her unsettled, while Harry is inspired to write a sonnet after an excursion into a magical light-filled grotto in Capri. When Evelyn refuses to befriend the troubled wife of a couple they meet on board, something of her hardening character is revealed. Harry observes that over time people usually revert to type; like Evelyn, they become more themselves, while others, like himself, lose some of their identity: “some people could not help but love, most people were prisoners of their own natures.” Harry feels he is not the person he was, the one who wanted to be a poet. Instead, he is a man whose wife has taken away his books, yet he never stops loving her.

Over the years, the marriage goes downhill, with Evelyn becoming more querulous and unreasonable, her husband ever more conciliatory and passive in the face of her outbursts, and one of their daughters wonders why they don’t just split up. With advanced old age, things get even worse. Tensions build, hostilities escalate, and, as Harry’s health deteriorates, Evelyn, never particularly nurturing, finds herself increasingly unable to cope.

As a history of love over the span of a long marriage, a union that grows more difficult with time, Page’s novel invites us to reflect on whether we can keep our individual selves intact in a marriage, whether the long journey undertaken by Harry and Evelyn has been worth the effort. I think her answer is yes, love can endure, even in a difficult marriage. Harry has had a vision (when in the grotto in Capri) of two people together after many years being “a heavenly thing,” and accepts that loving Evelyn is inseparable from who he is. If Dear Evelyn resembles an intimate biography, without the usual narrative arc of a novel, it is likely because Page has based the story on the lives of her own parents, and has even included some of the letters her father wrote to her mother when stationed overseas. A novel of great authenticity, imagination, historical accuracy, and psychological depth, Page’s book gets it right in one dazzling scene after another, leaving us with the satisfaction of knowing that this is how those lives would have been lived, and this is how life is.


—Sheila Munro

As in The Malahat Review, 206, Spring 2019