JOINT REVIEW: The Last Kiss by Sally Malcolm
A tender and triumphant story of forbidden love in the aftermath of war.
When Captain Ashleigh Arthur Dalton went to war in 1914, he never expected to fall in love. Yet over three long years at the front, his dashing batman, Private West, became his reason for fighting—and his reason for living.
But Ash’s war ends in catastrophe. Gravely wounded, he’s evacuated home to his family’s country house in Highcliffe. Bereft of West, angry and alone, Ash struggles to re-join the genteel world he no longer understands.
For Harry West, an ostler from London’s East End, it was love at first sight when he met kind and complex Captain Dalton. Harry doubts their friendship can survive in the class-bound world back home, but he knows he’ll never forget his captain.
When the guns finally fall silent, Harry finds himself adrift in London. Unemployed and desperate, he swallows his pride and travels to Highcliffe in search of work and the man he loves. Under the nose of Ash’s overbearing father, the men’s intense wartime friendship deepens into a passionate, forbidden love affair.
But breaching the barriers of class and sexuality is dangerous and enemies lurk in Highcliffe’s rose-scented shadows.
After giving their all for their country, Harry and Ash face a terrible choice—defy family, society and the law to love as their hearts demand, or say goodbye forever…
Sirius: I tend to enjoy romances starring veterans of the first world war. I enjoy the settings of 1920s and veterans finding happiness theme after a horrible war just appeals to me, so I was glad to find this book and overall it did not disappoint. The writing was lovely and both main characters very likable.
Janine: I love the 1910s/1920s settings too, especially in war-devastated Europe. The beginning of the book reminded me of the opening chapter of Sebastien Japrisot’s post-WWI love story and mystery novel, A Very Long Engagement, which remains one of my favorite mysteries 15+ years after reading it. That book has a strong antiwar theme and I could tell this one would, too. Unfortunately The Last Kiss wound up not working for me and I quit reading at 47%. I am so looking forward to discussing it with you, though.
One of the things I want to highlight before we get to the characters and their story is that I thought the historical aspect of the book was well-handled. I’m not an expert on the period but it read as well-researched to me and I felt the author had transported me to 1917-1919 Belgium and England. Well done, Sally Malcolm, on that score.
Sirius: The source of tension in the story (besides the obvious fact that two men could not live together in the open at that time) is Ash and Harry being from two different classes in British society. Wealthy and poor just should not be mixing together even as friends. However this generation went through horrors of war and they rebel, they do not want to live as their parents and grandparents did. Of course when I say they rebel, I do not mean that they rebel by disregarding each and every societal norm (and that would have been hugely unrealistic to me), but they use the means available to them to carve the happier lives for themselves, by getting what they want out of life.
Different lenses, West had called it, the way they’d seen mankind stripped bare, down to its bloody bones. Private or general, illiterate or scholar, honest British tommy or young Indian jawan—they’d all lived and died the same in the end, equally possessed of brutality and compassion, of love and hate. Of pity. Of blood. Just men clinging to their humanity and finding joy in each other, in scarlet bursts of friendship as bright and unexpected as the poppies that bloomed among the dead.
He had no way to explain any of this to his father. He was looking at Sir Arthur across time, across a chasm of experience, looking back into his own lost past. He might have thought as his father did, once. Thank God his eyes had been opened, their lids torn away so he had no choice but to see the truth.
“We done our duty. God knows, we gave our all for King and Country—you certainly did. So I reckon we get this in return. They bloody owe us.” Ash tightened his fingers on the door, heart thrashing inside the cage of his ribs. “Yes. Yes, they b-bloody well do.”
Janine: Yes, there were some great themes there. But though I love class-difference conflicts, this one kept failing for me.
I loved the opening section with the two men at the Flanders battlefield. War is a horrific environment, but it sometimes brings out the best as well as the worst in people. We saw what an amazing officer Ash was. Despite his terrible fear that he was leading his men to their deaths he has a kind word for each and every one of them. We saw Harry acting as a capable batsman and a source of steady support to Ash and to others. Their fear, their bravery in the face of it, and their unity of purpose were beautiful.
When they meet up again in England is where I gradually started losing interest. I still loved Harry. His steadfastness was an amazing thing. When he took work in Ash’s father’s stables, he also brought with him commitment–to his sister and nieces, to his work, and to Ash’s friendship. He had loved Ash for years but hidden it, and didn’t know what to do with that love now that they occupied a much different realm. But his careful thinking, his attentiveness and his conflicted emotions (not about Ash but about how to be in a romantic relationship with him while employed by his father) were lovely.
Ash’s characterization was where I ran into problems. The author’s handling of the potential hand grenade of ableism was far from the worst I’ve seen but it also wasn’t the best.
First, Ash had a lot of angst about his physical disability (he had lost a foot in the war) but the injury was recent enough that I could deal with that, especially since he was on a path to getting better.
Second, we see him struggle against terrible PTSD flashbacks too and in many ways that is the harder battle. I sometimes felt that he was being pitied for it by Harry, but most of the time it was empathy and understanding so it wasn’t too bad.
Third, Ash lost self-confidence, too. He had not been a confident man even before, but after his injury he lost most of his faith in himself and developed a stutter. I was a at times discomfited with the way Harry’s healthy physicality and resilience were contrasted with Ash’s fragility, both physical and mental, especially in the context of their relationship (see below).
A fourth conflict was that he felt trapped. Ash was a dreamer; he wanted a different, kinder and more fair world. These values weren’t to be found at his parents’ home, where he was staying. This was good to a point but needed toning down.
It’s not so much any single one of these things but all four together, added to a fifth and sixth—survivor’s guilt and a sensitivity that had been there before the war—that put his character in a difficult space for me. Particularly in his relationship to Harry.
The six things combined to make Ash extremely high-strung. One moment he was suffering physical pain, the next in a flashback, the next struggling to get out words, the next building a castle in the sky, then haunted by the war deaths. That kept him from thinking about his future and robbed him of agency. Harry and Olive (a young nurse Ash’s parents want him to marry) took steps to help him physically and mentally but I wanted to see Ash take his health into his own hands and have fresh ideas about what kind of future he wanted for himself. He was presented as almost helpless at times.
And here’s where my biggest problem with the book came in. I felt that I could see the author’s hand in this, that she was doing tormenting Ash and shredding his confidence so he and Harry could be on equal ground despite the class differences.
I didn’t feel that this was needed, or at least, that it needed to that degree. Given how Ash fought back terror in the war, I didn’t want to see him terrified again but this time with almost all his supports but Harry shredded–his father, his mother, his world, his faith in his body and in himself, his ability to think clearly and stay in the present. Especially as I felt it was being done for the romance, to put the men on equal ground. It made me unhappy, but it wasn’t Ash I was unhappy with. It was the author.
Sirius: Very interesting. I partially see your point about authorial manipulation (as I said below a repetitive message about let’s change the world for the better did being to bother me too), but while I do see how Ash was made to suffer from a lot of issues none of it really bother me, because it was believable (for me that is).
I admit I don’t even understand what is the issue with feeling bad for Ash losing his foot? I know you did not say that it is a problem, but you mentioned avoiding grenade of ableism and I honestly stumbled there.
I absolutely can see how everything was leaped on Ash at the same time, but because it is easy for me to imagine that people like him existed (disabled veterans coming back from the war and at least some of them belonging to upper classes), I did not find the characterization problematic I think.
Janine: With regard to how the book dodged ableism in terms of how Ash processed his foot injury, it’s a matter of how a disability is viewed in the novel. If characters (including the disabled character) look at it with pity or a feeling that the able-bodied characters are better off, luckier and more whole, there is the implication that a disability makes a person lesser–lesser in the ability to be happy and perhaps in terms of having agency as well. With Ash himself this wasn’t too bad because his injury was borderline new. I could view him as being in an adjustment period if I squinted. Had the book been set a year or two later and he was still angsting over it, I would have viewed that as bad representation, a more permanent case of internalized ableism. That would have bothered me.
Sirius: I can see how all this could have been done for the romance, but again I was not troubled – of course in the non romance genre it may have played differently and in a more complicated way, but the simpler way of trying to breach the class barrier was good enough for me I guess.
I also think that partially I was not too troubled by Ash wanting a better world is because I am not convinced that he would have wanted to get back to the world prior to war all that much.
Not in a sense that he enjoyed being at war, obviously not, but for some reason I felt like that Ash suspected that he may have feelings for other men before he ever met Harry. I know Harry was his first love and I am not even sure if there was a direct textual support for me feeling that way, but for some reason I definitely felt that after I finished the book. And he was a younger son and working in the bank is what he would have to look forward to.
Janine: Yes, I agree with you on that. I was not troubled by Ash’s desire for a better world per se, but I felt that it (A) was one more source of torment, (B) repeated ad nauseam (as you note below), and (C) would have been more realistically portrayed as three steps forward one step back.
(Ash had a lot of privilege prior to the war and however right, fair, just and healthy for him, I think IRL it would take adjusting to. If he’d had one or two moments of doubt about whether he could stick to the path he’d chosen, something that would have lasted a minute and made him feel immediate remorse, he would have been more multidimensional.)
Sirius: In my opinion he ends up having more agency than Harry. I mean I guess it all evens out at the end, but Ash does things to get what he wants from life in my opinion very much so.
On par with the actual development of the romantic relationship I would say that this was the main theme of the book – the desire of young men and women to live in the better world and trying their best to make it with the means available to them. Accidentally this was the main issue I had with the book as well – of course this made perfect sense. Of course I sympathized with Ashleigh and Harry and hoped they will get their happy ending.
I also liked Olive and wanted for her to get what she wanted from life. But to me this became repetitive. As I said before, I thought the writing was lovely, but by the end of the book I did kinda feel that author was beating me over the head with – old generation should not be holding us back from building the better world, they did not live through the horrors of the war, we did, we suffered and we should be able to have a better future for ourselves and everybody who wants it.
Janine: Yes! That was another place where I felt the heavy-handedness. The author had a point but it didn’t need to be drilled in. That was done through all three characters, Ash, Harry and Olive, multiple times.
And it was channeled through Ash most of all, when IRL a person of his background wouldn’t be that likely to feel it more strongly than the other two. Harry had a lot more stakes in a future where men were equal, Olive, in a future where women were equal. It would afford them both greater agency and more opportunities. For Ash, it was mostly an idealistic position inspired by his feelings for Harry and his wartime service and one that caused him to feel further trapped while living with his conservative and snobbish parents. It read to me like merely one more way to give him angst and torment.
If this drive had come more strongly from Harry it would have been more interesting but just as Ash had to stay tormented to put them on a level playing field so was Harry forestalled from having ambition for his own future.
More generally, the writing lacked subtlety. Future conflicts as well as things that would bring them together were telegraphed so strongly in advance that I didn’t feel urgency to keep reading. Most of the secondary characters fall into good or bad. Ash’s dad is over-the-top oppressive and blustering. His mother thinks he’s a lesser person since his injury. There are few shades of gray in the book. I didn’t feel the story was going anywhere surprising.
Sirius: I do agree that a lot of secondary characters lacked shades of grey. I know re: story not going anywhere surprising. From the moment John appeared, I was like oh, this gun should have to shoot at some point. I think because I liked main characters I tolerated that.
I really did like the romance. I thought Harry and Ashleigh were absolute sweethearts and had very nice chemistry together and two brothers in arms who supported each other during the war, their love felt only stronger to me during the peace time, and the fact that it was under threat the whole time, only made me sympathize more.
Janine: Harry is an absolute sweetheart. I love a solid, responsible, caring character. Ash was a lovely character in the first chapter. After that I started feeling he was OTT high-strung but I put that down to the author, not the character. The character had his heart in the right place.
I wish that a bigger chunk of the book–maybe 40%–had been spent on the battlefields of WWI because this was where they fell in love and that section of the book (bar a few head-poundings about how they loved each other) was just gorgeous. I could feel their desperate love for one another, lived against a hellish backdrop where a minute could cost one of them his beloved’s life. It was a vivid, emotionally powerful, marvelous relationship.
Between my issues with Ash’s portrayal and the lack of subtlety, I reached a point where I read maybe three pages a night. It wasn’t a terrible book but I didn’t care that much about where it was going. I wanted the author to make different, more interesting, surprising choices.
Sirius: I fully understand your point of view, I don’t feel that way, but I don’t really disagree that Ash’s world was torn away from him and probably for the romance sake, I guess I just did not see that Ash would have been happy in that world anyway even if war did not happen?
Janine: I agree with you that he would not have. But like many people he was disoriented by the changes in the world and combined with all his other torments, this disorientation—whether or not good for Ash–was too much to inflict on one character.
I feel that way partly because I also felt that the characters weren’t growing and changing in a natural, organic way, but rather that the author was pushing them around like pawns on a board so that they would end up where she wanted them. For me this sentiment connects to the way she hammered messages into the ground, telegraphed what would happen next, and spelled out character emotions when she could have let their actions, gestures, sensory descriptions and conversations speak for themselves.
Sirius: I thought the author found a nice solution for them to be together – a bit too convenient but believable nevertheless.
Janine: What’s your grade for this book, Sirius? Obviously it is a DNF for me.
Sirius: My grade is B.