Romance, betrayal and a touch of macabre

In a chance meeting in 1934, Nina hosts a dinner party. She’s 14, trying on womanhood for the first time, and even the drunken foolery of Guy Nicholson and his friend can’t outweigh the growing importance of his gaze. Before she knows it, she’s smitten.

“The Woman in the Sable Coat” primarily takes place in a small village outside of English author Elizabeth Brooks’ native Chester, though reaching as far as Canada. And, recalling elements from her previous three novels, women take the spotlight in family dramas backlit by World War II with occasional flickers toward thriller or mystery as chapters flip between Guy’s wife, Kate, in the first person, and Nina in the third.

Years after that disaster of a dinner party, when war is declared, Nina follows Guy to the Royal Air Force by joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. It takes a while, but she gets her chance — her leaving behind her widower father and a string of boyfriends claimed by the war; him leaving behind a doomed marriage and a son.

Kate, meanwhile, diverts her worried thoughts away from her own predicament and toward Nina’s father, Henry, who may know more about the town’s secrets than he lets on.
What unfolds next is a surprising series of turns that chip away at murky pasts and half-truths until everything is finally revealed.

“The Woman in the Sable Coat,” while full of rewarding surprises, is truly made by Brooks’ voice, in which every word has value and helps shape the exact texture of the moment.

Viewing a slice of the world through Nina’s and Kate’s eyes, it’s surprisingly easy to get swept up into the story. It’s an exceptionally vivid picture, both of scenery and the inner workings of the characters’ minds. Emotions and motives are painted with rich colors that draw your eye to the most delicious details, when they matter, like an updated and more approachable Jane Austen.

A story of betrayal and unlikely friendships filled with reflective tidbits of wisdom, the novel blends WWII fiction with idyllic romance drama and a touch of macabre thriller for a polished addition to Brooks’ works.

Edwards reviews books for The Associated Press.