Summer Pages

House of Correction by Nicci French ****

Tabitha has returned to the remote coastal village where she grew up but it seems that this was a mistake. She didn’t fit in then, and very little has changed – apart from the fact that (crucially) she is being accused of murdering her old schoolteacher Stuart Rees. The question is – did Tabitha do it? It seems that she had the motive, and his dead body was certainly found in her shed. But Tabitha is suffering from severe bouts of depression and she can’t remember the events of that day. It’s a blur. She doesn’t think she is capable of murder – but who else could be responsible?

As Tabitha is in prison awaiting trial, she rejects her defence lawyer’s suggestion to plead guilty to manslaughter and decides to represent herself. She trawls through hours of CCTV footage and piles of paperwork in an effort to discover the truth, fighting, against all odds, to clear her name and claim her freedom.

In this twisty tale, Nicci French tackles themes of prejudice, loneliness and the fighting spirit, producing, as always, an excellent and compelling read.


The Elopement by Tracy Rees ****

It is 1897 and society beauty Rowena Blythe is feeling the pressure. She is expected to marry well and soon… but she is restless. Surely there is more to life than what she is experiencing right now?

It turns out there is much more. Rowena falls in love with the romantic and bohemian artist’s apprentice who is helping to paint her portrait and for Rowena, things will never be the same again.

The other main protagonists in this warm and engaging story are Pansy, servant girl at the Blythes’ but with other and bigger ambitions and Olive Westallen, a woman with a fortune equal to that of the Blythes’ but with a very different attitude towards what she should do with it. Olive was my favourite character in the book – she has such a refreshing attitude to life and she embraces the unconventional; she seems untouched by the hypocrisies and narrowness of late Victorian times; in contrast, she has set up a foundation which attempts to help those without means, without a voice and without money, so that they can learn to make their own way in life. Through Olive, Tracy Rees questions high-handed patriarchy and misogyny as well as the unfairness of the class system of the time.

This author has a gift for story-telling and for creating warm, lively and individual characters who spring from the page and to show us what late-Victorian life was like for some – in the most delightful and entertaining way.


Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan ***

It is 1985 in a small Irish town where life is hard for many people. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal merchant and family man faces his busiest season and at least has a house and enough to eat. He loves his family, but he is restless. Is this all that life holds, he wonders? This endless struggle to make ends meet? His wife Eileen is of the opinion that it’s better not to think too deeply about things, but it’s not like that for Bill. He sees his future stretching in front of him – an endless routine of work and identical Sundays ruled by the Church. He always has worries on his mind. But lately, he has started imagining something different…

Early one morning, while delivering an order to the local convent, Bill makes a discovery which forces him to confront both his past and the complicit silences of a town controlled by the Church. He is a good man, his own upbringing was dependent on the kindness and goodwill of others towards his un-married mother and now, he wrestles with his conscience. Can he live himself if he ignores what he has discovered? Or can he find the courage to show true Christian compassion in the face of the anger of the Church?

This book is a short read and it feels under-developed in terms of the ending, but it is hard-hitting and thought-provoking and will stay with you for much longer. Highly recommended.


My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout ***

Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, comes to see her and this unexpected and often moving visit forces Lucy to confront the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of her life: her impoverished childhood in Amgash, Illinois, her escape to New York and her desire to become a writer, her faltering marriage, her love for her two daughters.

Lucy is an observant and fluent narrator and I enjoyed the quips and comments about human behaviour, memories and the way we all manoeuvre our passage through the world. The structure of the book is interesting – we flip back and forward in narrative time continually, but it is always clear when and where we are. And the writing style is direct, conversational, almost poetic at times in the use of repetition, which works well to create tension too.

As a writer, I enjoyed some of the writerly bits, for example when the narrative voice is confused with the author’s voice by a reader, and some of the comments about how writers have to be, and there were some powerful touches throughout. Above all in this book, the mother and daughter relationship is key. Highly recommended.


Free Love by Tessa Hadley ***

Set in London in the 1960s, this novel captures the vibe of the time; the sense of sexual and intellectual awakening for women. The Fischer family seem at first to belong to a different world of suburbia and conventions. Phyllis is the domestic goddess – or at least a homemaker who is fortunate enough to have a cleaner and home help – but she is expert at playing the part expected of her. She has had a sheltered upbringing and little sexual experience before meeting her husband Roger, and she seems content to flirt meaninglessly at parties and to focus on making the house look beautiful. Roger is a devoted father with a career in the Foreign Office; their marriage is considerate and affable, but clearly not passionate nor based even on a strong love and affection. Their children are Colette, a bookish but wanting to be rebellious teenager, who is trying to fit in, make friends at school and find a way of being herself at the same time and Hugh, the golden boy, adored by his mother.

Everything changes for this family when the twenty-something son of an old friend pays the Fischers a visit one hot summer evening, and kisses Phyllis in the dark garden after dinner. Something in her catches fire. Newly awake to the world, Phyllis makes a choice that defies all expectations of her as a wife and a mother.

It turns out that nothing in these ordinary lives is so ordinary after all, as the family’s upheaval mirrors the dramatic transformation of the society around them. Tessa Hadley is expert at exploring her characters’ inner worlds, laying bare their fears and longings.

My one criticism of this book is that the ending felt rushed. I felt that I wanted more development of the main characters at key moments in the later stages, whilst in fact we were whisked rapidly through narrative time in these sections. However, I still loved the book and it was a hugely enjoyable read.


Tell Me How to Be Me by Neel Patel ****

Akash is a struggling songwriter who is also struggling to come out to his family and overcome his unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Added to this, his father Ashok has recently died.

Akash’s mother Renu was pressurised into an arranged marriage to Ashok but has always loved another man, a Muslim, and found it hard to relate to her younger son.

I was quickly drawn into this story of complex relationships, and I appreciated the rapid and snappy viewpoint sections moving to and fro between Akash and Renu. It is a style which enables the characters and situations to be developed and explored in an intense and revealing way. Most of this narrative is addressed to the 2nd person ‘you’ (there are two ‘you’s) and this adds a touch of mystery and narrative tension to the early stages of the novel. Do these romantic relationships exist only in the mind? Only time will tell.

But the novel works so well because not only does it address big personal, sexual and cultural issues as well as family drama, but it is harrowing and also (at times) hilariously funny. That’s my kind of combination and I loved it.


© Rosanna Ley
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