The Fens — the marshy, boggy wilderness that straddles and saturates several counties on England's lower eastern flank — have formed the backdrop to many notable literary works, from Graham Swift's novel "Waterland" to, more recently, Daisy Johnson's debut story collection "Fen." Sue Hubbard is the latest English author to utilize the bleakly beautiful wetlands as a setting.

Loosely modeled on Paul Gallico's classic novella "The Snow Goose," Hubbard's fourth novel, "Flatlands," centers upon two lonely souls who forge a connection with one another and the landscape around them.

Narrator Freda looks back on her younger self from the vantage point of old age. Her story begins in September 1939. At age 12, she and other children are evacuated from the East End of London to avoid the imminent German bombing campaign. In a remote corner of Lincolnshire, she is billeted with Mr. and Mrs. Willock, who eke out a living as farmers and poachers. The move proves disorientating: Freda swaps the bustle and vitality of the city for desolate, featureless countryside; she leaves behind the warmth and comfort provided by her mother and grandmother for a cold and taciturn couple who exploit and, later, abuse her.

But Freda is not the only outsider in the area. Former Oxford student and committed conscientious objector Philip Rhayader has traveled far from the madding crowd and taken up residence in a nearby lighthouse after losing his faith, abandoning his vocation and suffering a nervous breakdown. A sensitive young man "too open to the world," Philip achieves peace of mind devoting himself to the two things that matter to him — painting and nature.

When Freda turns up at Philip's door with a wounded goose, appealing for his help, the pair nurse it back to health. They also form an unlikely alliance that defies age and class boundaries. Philip gets the little sister he never had, while Freda gets a guide who introduces her to books, birds and art. But, as enemy planes fill the sky and naval defenses appear along the coast, a Nazi invasion becomes more real and the friendship's future less certain.

Hubbard has written an enthralling novel that vividly maps the lay of a land and expertly evokes the tension of an era. Wonders of nature are conveyed in lyrical prose: "Grass and reeds, half-submerged meadowlands, mudflats and saltings appear stitched to the huge skies and wide expanse of open sea." There are poignant meditations on harking back and growing old ("Age is a symphony of small losses") and visceral descriptions of the chaos and horrors of the Dunkirk evacuation.

Most memorable of all, though, are Hubbard's twin portraits of her protagonists. It takes a while for their lives to intersect but, when they do, we see how these two outcasts, alone and adrift, find sanctuary with each other.

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.


By: Sue Hubbard.

Publisher: Pushkin Press, 272 pages, $16.95.