Rating: 5 stars
“He’s at the end of his rope…until fate casts a lifeline.”
WWI has ended and Dr. Orlando Coppersmith is back at St. Bride’s College, after being freed from a German prisoner of war camp. The cost of the war is all around him but the deepest, most traumatic blow is the loss of his lover and companion of more than a decade, Dr. Jonty Stewart, killed in action in the Somme. Orlando is consumed by his loss and going through the motions of his previous life when unexpectedly a case arises to take his mind off his desolation. A mother is sure her son did not die in battle and wants Orlando to find him or the truth whatever it may be so her mind can be at ease. The pursuit of that truth will take Orlando back to places he wished he could forget and times of untold horror and pain.
But on the French seafront at Cabourg, Lavinia Stewart Broad and her family are taking a walk on the sands when she comes across the last person she ever expected to see, giving her hope and joy for the first time in ages. The impact of the war that has been left behind on those who fought cannot be lessoned in a day or even month. And not all the pain and scarring left is visible on the outside. Nothing in Orlando’s intellectual framework has prepared him for what comes next and it will take everything he has to grasp on to this new hope and hold on through to a future he thought was gone.
From the opening sentence we are audience to a sorrow so profound that you will be weeping within minutes. I don’t think there is a more powerful symbol of love that can grip you except its absence after having found it and that is Orlando Coppersmith at the beginning of All Lessons Learned.
This is how we find him:
“The twelfth day of the eleventh month, 1918. Orlando Coppersmith stood outside the prisoner of war camp and listened, almost unbelieving. No distant guns. No shouts or cries. No whinnying of frightened horses. Somewhere a bird was singing—two birds—and a distant dog barked. It felt unreal, as if this were a dream and the memory of the last few years the reality to which they would wake.”
The first world war has ended and its impact is hitting home as the men who survived WWI return back to their lives. Those that don’t return lie dead on foreign soil or have fled, marked as cowards, some because of what we know is PTSD, a concept so foreign that is was mocked as an excuse of cowards instead as the very real condition we know today. Charlie Cochrane brings the reader the horrors that WWI visited on all involved by making it personal with its impact on characters we have met and come to love in the Cambridge Fellows Mysteries. In the opening pages, we find out that Dr. Peters, the Master of St. Bride’s College has died. Also gone are Mr. and Mrs. Stewart, Jonty’s parents who also became the same to Orlando over the course of their relationship. Jonty has been killed during fighting on the Somme and with them everything central to Orlando’s happiness and contentment , the core that made his life worth living is shattered, leaving Orlando adrift, tethered to life by a promise, Mrs. Sheridan nee Peters, and Lavinia Stewart Broad and her family.
I can think of no better way to visit the horrors that war can impart than through the eyes of a beloved character and Cochrane pulls us into Orlando’s memories with a gritty harshness not found elsewhere in the series. This is a much changed Orlando since last we saw him. No longer does this vaunted mathematician see the world in black and white. Time, loss and his experiences on the front and in a prisoner of war camp have changed him forever with one exception. His love for Jonty is as strong and final as it ever was, and now he is trying to continue living as he promised and falling short. That changed man, more than anything else Cochrane could have done, tells us how much the world has altered in order for that to happen. Have the tissues at hand, because this is going to hurt and hurt deeply.
Another fine element of this novel is the subject of what today we know as PTSD and veterans. Then it had different names, shell shock for one, neurasthenia for another, the last being an ill-defined mental illness that encapsulated everything from fatigue to irritability and mental instability. That is when it was believed in, for some doctors and the public, it was just an excuse for cowardice under fire. Here is another passage when Orlando is interviewing someone about MacNeil the man he is trying to locate:
“Orlando wouldn’t use the word “desert”. He’d heard too much rubbish spouted about men who’d lost their nerve, especially from people who’d been no nearer the front than the promenade at Dover.”
Those words might just have easily come out of the 60’s, or 80’s or even now. While the weapons and locations may change, the impact of war upon people’s minds and bodies does not and here we see the results in Orlando and many others he comes across during his investigation. Through recounted memories or more accurately nightmares, we hear the constant pounding of exploding munitions and the whistling of the shells overhead, the empty sleeves and missing legs of the remnants of the men who made it back, and the holes in the lives left behind of those that didn’t. This is a grim and necessary element of All Lessons Learned and its impact upon the reader tells you exactly how well Charlie Cochrane did her job in making it real to us too.
There are also some wondrous moments in this story that will make all the pain and tears worthwhile. They will come not with great shouts of joy and fireworks but quietly, with subtly and that’s as it should be given the nature of the couple at the heart of this series. One of the elements that made Orlando’s grief worse was that he could not mourn the loss of his lover the same as any other “widower” for that was indeed what he was. Orlando’s grief had to remain hidden from all but a few who knew the couple and their true relationship. And that isolation of his grief made a deeper cut than if he might have been able to mourn with the countless others at the time. Orlando Coppersmith is a complex man and brings those same complexities of nature to everything that happens to him, good, bad or miraculous. So the events that occur later on the story won’t surprise anyone who has become familiar with his character. Somethings are truly fundamental and that is reassuring too.
This is not the end of the series, although I suspect at the time Charlie Cochrane intended it to be from the epilogue here. One more book was written. And that prompted a number of questions I had for the author. I hope to have my review and the answers to those questions posted for you sometime soon. But in a way this does provide a sort of ending because the world and these men were never the same after WWI. Changes start to happen rapidly throughout the world and the gentler time of the first seven books is forever vanished. This series has become dear to my heart and we have one more visit to go. I hope you will stay with me to the end. For those of you for whom this review is your first introduction, please start from the beginning. Take your time getting to know these remarkable men, delve into life and times of England in the 1900’s. It starts out with all the joys of a slow promenade and then picks up the pace with each succeeding book.
It is an extraordinary journey. Dont miss a page of it. Here are the order the stories were written and should be read to fully understand the relationships and events that occur:
Lessons in Love (Cambridge Fellows, #1)
My True Love Sent To Me
Once We Won Matches (Cambridge Fellows, #7.5)
All Lessons Learned (Cambridge Fellows, #8)
Lessons for Survivors (Cambridge Fellows, #9) – released by Cheyenne Publishing.
For free stories in the Cambridge Fellows Mysteries universe and more about the author, visit the author’s website.