A travesty that this tosh was nominated for the Orange prize.
It is the muddled but predictable story Anna Sands, evacuated from London to Ashton Park (a stately home adapted as home and school for 86 evacuees). While there, she becomes aware of illicit adult relationships and her experiences leave their mark into adulthood. It also tells the stories of childless Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton, Thomas' siblings, Anna's parents, and, for no particular reason other than to inject a bit of "real" WW2 action, Clifford and Peter Norton (he a diplomat and she an art dealer). It also throws in some parallels with Jane Eyre (including the "invisible thread" and an attic fire), with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
The worst aspect is the appalling writing (and she graduated in English, from Oxford!).
Rosie Alison is OBSESSED with eyes to a distracting and laughable degree. Sometimes there are three or four clichéd mentions on a single page: "eyes on stalks", "eyes bright", "bright eyed", "watchful eyes", "remote eyes", "arresting blue gaze", "level blue gaze", "fresh eyes", "wounded eyes", "complicit eyes", "eyes met... like an electric jolt" and on and on. It is relentless and bizarre. Even some forget-me-not flowers do not escape, being "like brilliant blue eyes". By the end of the book, even the characters are obsessed: after more than 20 years, "he could still see her eyes" and "I have been looking for you all my adult life - that look in your eyes".
Overall, it is totally lacking in subtlety; everything is spelt out too much, making it more like a children's book in some ways. For example, "And then he felt ashamed", which is fine, but it then adds "he did not want to be unkind, or even think unkindly about anyone". Similarly, there is quite a good passage describing "avid faces of the other children, their guilty fascination to know what it might feel like to lose your mother", which is ruined by adding "A part of her felt strangely important: an aristocrat of grief"! Then there are agonising passages such as "was there really something flowing between them, as she sometimes thought, or was it all just her imagination?", which, if the story were properly told, the reader should be able to intuit. As for "Teaching made her happy.", it sounds like something from a learning to read book, not an adult novel.
There are some odd analogies that left me amused and baffled in equal measure: just after an embrace, "that fragile day, its touchless light" (touchless?); "the rapid flicker of her moods... she carried her own personal weather"; "time was freighted with unstated intimacy"; "the tiny gap between her teeth gave her a frank charm"; "uncluttered face easily lit by smiles", and best/worst of all, "It was as if her head had been suddenly tuned into a new wireless for other people's sorrows".
When she finds a word or analogy she likes, she is not afraid to repeat it: parents are "stiff"; Thomas is always "gallant"; within the space of four pages, two women "reinvent" themselves, and spirits "flow around" just a few pages after souls "leak away" in the fires of broken gas pipes.
One weird feature of this and "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" (whose author praises this), is that although there is some justification of childish sentences and banal exposition when the story is told from Anna's view, the style pervades the whole book. Yet conversely, there are several times when the child is implausibly adult in their understanding. For example, while waiting to be chosen for a billet, 8 year old Anna noticed a man "who spoke to her [Mrs Ashton] with deference" and after hearing a row, Anna wonders "Did all adults cry out in such pain behind their bedroom doors?
There are also some tedious anachronisms, but in a book this bad, they scarcely matter. (For the record, very few debutants in the 1920s had been to university; wind chimes and "hanging out" were not common before the war (the phrase took off in the 1960s), and in 1965 postcodes were only partially introduced and not something many people knew about, let alone bothered to use.)
I'm afraid the only redeeming feature of this book is that it's a quick read and it is so bad, it may make you laugh.