I almost gave up on Helen Dunmore’s Cold War novel. I didn’t like the “men from the Ministry” – the all male world of a post-War Admiralty, and the spooks and the spies at work there – and it wasn’t until the narrative shifted to focus more on the fall out for Lily Callington and her family and friends that I really cared about any of the characters.
You gradually learn that Lily was born in Germany to Jewish parents, and fled as a child with her mother to London. She’s buried that part of her life, and has lost all memory of the German language despite teaching French and Italian at a North London Girl’s school. Her husband, Simon Callington, is a lowly clerk at the Admiralty, who has a secret of his own from his Cambridge student days which ultimately enmeshes him in Cold War corruption.
The Three Sisters are Henry VII‘s daughters (and Henry VIII’s elder and younger sister respectively), Margaret and Mary Tudor, and their sister in law (Henry VIII’s first wife), Katherine of Aragon.
These three women are also Queens – Margaret, married young to James IV of Scotland with the hope of establishing peace between the two nations, is the main voice of the novel. She moves from envy to pity for Catherine of Aragon, Queen of England by virtue of her marriage to Henry VIII, and is eternally irritated by her prettier, younger sister, Mary, Queen of France for three brief months following her marriage to Louis XII of France.
Bristol’s 18th century building boom when the elegant terraces emerged above Clifton Gorge; revolutionaries in France and radicals in England – Lizzie Fawkes’s life provides an intersection of all three in Helen Dunmore‘s last novel.