Turning the Stones by Debra Daley

This is an intriguing human drama, set in the middle of the eighteenth century.

In London, a young woman wakes in an unfamiliar bedchamber. She is dishevelled, she is covered in blood, and a man lies dead beside her. She has no memory of how she got there, of what happened, but she knows that she must flee.

In Connemara, an older woman stands on a beach, calling on ancient magic, turning the stones, as she strives to put right a terrible wrong.

It’s a confident beginning, and I was quickly captivated

I had no idea what the significance of what was happening in Connemara, but I was swept away by the story of the young woman who was searching for means of escape.

Mary Smith – known as Em – was a lady’s maid, and I liked her from the start. She was clearly bright and practical, and she was also very scared. With good reason.

Of course, I had to wonder if she was unreliable, is she was a murderer, but I was inclined to think not – especially when I observed her reaction as she realised who the dead man was. And it was clear that there were other, deeper, mysteries to consider.

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Em had been brought to the Cheshire country home of the ambitious Waterland family, as a very young child. She grew up as a companion to their daughter, Eliza, and her status was unclear. She was above the servants but below the family. They told her that she was a foundling, but she might have been a by-blow, or a poor relation.

The day came when Em’s position was made clear to her. Eliza was to be a lady and Em was to be her maid. The relationship between the two girls changed then, of course it did. And it became clear that Eliza was horribly spoiled and selfish. That her brother, James, was a dissolute schemer. That the family fortune was crumbling.

Em was horrified when she was molested by the wealthy man who the family hoped Eliza would marry. She knew that she had nowhere else to go, that she had no one to turn to, that she would be at the mercy of Eliza and the man she married.

She thought on all of this as she ran, telling her story to the mother she had never known. She planned to find a ship to take her to France, but after a series of accidents and misadventures she finds herself on board a smuggling ship. Captain McDonagh would listen to Em, he would protect her, but he would not compromise his vessel or his men. And he was sailing to a very different destination.

Maybe the stones were calling …. the narrative weaves together the stories of Em’s past and present and the visions and memories of Kitty Conneely, the woman turning stones on the beach, to very fine effect.

A fine array of characters and settings were conjured up very well, and there were some nice period details. But this isn’t really a ‘noticing the period details and assessing things’ book, it’s a ‘keep turning the pages to find out what happens next and how the story will play out’ book. And it does what it does very well, twisting, turning and holding on to the big reveal to the very end without ever feeling like a tease.

The grand finale is nicely dramatic, and it the end everything makes sense.

There are one or too loose ends, a few practical problems skated around, and places where a little more subtlety wouldn’t have gone amiss, but nothing that spoiled the story.

This a book to be entertained by, not a book to over-think.

Yes, I think that I’d call ‘Turning the Stones’ a fine, dark, historical entertainment.

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