The Girl in the Photograph by Kate Riordan

I find it difficult to resist period romances set in country houses, especially when there’s a hint of suspense or a touch of the gothic, and ‘The Girl in the Photograph’ promised all of that.

This is a story is told in retrospect, recalling events that had happened just a few years earlier.

‘I could never have imagined all that would happen in those few short months and how, by the end of them, my life would have altered irrevocably and for ever’

In 1932 Alice was young, and she was holding down a good job while she waited, quite passively, for when ‘her life – her real life – would begin’. That made her susceptible to a charming older man she met at work. She thought that he was the great love of her life, but he seduced and abandoned her.

23201410Alice’s mother was horrified when she found that her daughter was pregnant, but she was practical and she took matters out of Alice’s hands. She arranged for her daughter to stay with an old friend who was the housekeeper and custodian of  Fiercombe Manor, in the depths of Gloucestershire , while she waited to give birth. She told Alice that she must present herself as a widow, whose husband had died in an accident not long after the wedding, and that when the child was born it would be put up for adoption, so that Alice could resume her old life without shame or stigma.

The story was well told, and it rang true. I believed in Alice’s fall, and in her mother’s response. I understood how each of them must have felt

The  old acquaintance in the country – close enough to offer such help but not so close that she might have any idea that the story she was told was untrue – seemed a little  convenient, but the story was engaging and it held such promise.

“Firecombe is a place of secrets. They fret among the uppermost branches of the beech trees and brood at the cold bottom of the stream that cleaves the valley in two. The past has seeped into the soil here, like spilt blood. If you listen closely enough you can almost hear what’s gone before, particularly on the stillest days. Sometimes the very air seems to hum with anticipation. At other times it’s as though a collective breath has been drawn in and held. It waits, or so it seems to me.”

When Alice arrives at Fiercombe Manor she is uncomfortable with the story she has to tell, and the unwarranted sympathy that she receives. And at night, when the house is silent, she feels another presence in her room. She wonders if the house is haunted, if that is why the family who own the house but who never visit, if there might be a story to be uncovered.

‘I felt intrigued and almost excited, as though a mystery had presented itself to be solved. Delving into the past was just the sort of distraction I needed to take me away from my own present.’

She asks Mrs Jelphs, the housekeeper about the history of the house and about Lady Elizabeth Stanton , the last lady of the manor. Mrs Jelphs had been concerned, helpful and supportive of Alice, she became evasive. Even though she knew that Alice knew that she might have told her a great deal; because years ago she had been Elizabeth’s maid.

Elizabeth’s she recalls the summer of 1898 when she too is awaiting the birth of her child. She lived in Stanton House which was nearby to Fiercombe Manor, but was there no more.  Like Alice, she is pregnant, she is alone and yet not alone, and she is apprehensive about what will happen when her baby is born.

The Girl in the Photograph tells Alice and Elizabeth’s stories, until one of them comes to a  dramatic, shocking end.

The story with beautifully told. The house lived and breathed; the atmosphere, the mystery and intrigue, were pitch perfect; and the gothic overtones were so very well done.

But though I loved Elizabeth’s story, which broke my heart  in the end, I was less taken and less moved by Alice. I found her gauche and self-absorbed, and when I came to the end of the story and thought back to her words in the prologue …. well, that confirmed my feelings..

The writing is gorgeous, the story is readable, and I’m sorry that it doesn’t quite live up to that writing and that it has no more than the writing to set it apart from many other stories like this..

The Curiosity Cabinet by Catherine Czerkawska

On a cold, dark winter evening, it was lovely to be swept away, to a Hebridean island that Catherine Czerkawska named Garve:

“The island is full of flowers. Ashore, Alys knows that honeysuckle will clutter the hedgerows like clotted cream, weaving a dense tapestry with marching lines of purple foxgloves. Earlier in the year there would have been clumps of thrift, a wild rock garden defining all the bays. Later, meadowsweet will fill the hedges and ditches. But now there will be pink roses and yellow irises. There will be nut-brown boats drawn up on the pale sand, and dress-suited oystercatchers patrolling among the seaweed. As the ferry comes to shore, she notices that the sea around Garve is still that shade of turquoise that she has seen nowhere else. The light is different here; the colours are brighter and more luminous. None of that has changed. It is the same as it always was.”

Alys Miller came to visit Garve while her eight year-old son was away with his father and new stepmother in Italy. She had so many memories of childhood holidays on island, but the holiday when Alys had invited a friend who didn’t enjoy the island and the outdoor life, when a delicate balance had been disturbed, was the last family holiday on Garve. She hadn’t been back since then.

Alys  fell in love with her island all over again, and then she met Donal McNeill, the island boy who had been a good friend to her and her brother. She was so pleased that he remembered her, he appreciated her love of his island, and they had many memories to share.

11850918This was the beginning of a very real love story, complicated because each had their own history and complications in different parts of the country.

That story was told beautifully, with sensitivity and understanding. These people and their lives were real; they were fallible and they were fragile.

I was so very taken with that story that I was disappointed when I realised that it was going to be told with another story, set on Garve many years earlier. But I was soon every bit as interested in that story.

Towards the end of the 17th century Henrietta Dalrymple, a wealthy young widow, was kidnapped and brought to Garve, the prisoner of island chieftain Manus McNeill . She was distraught,  and she was grief-stricken at being parted from her infant son. Manus regrets what he did, but he knows that he had his reasons, and that what had been done cannot be undone.

In time Henrietta learns that she must accept her fate and that she has to live a different life. Manus admires that, and he does what he can to support her in her new life. at first they are wary of each other, but slowly another love story begins to unfold.

It’s a more unlikely story that the first, but I believed that these people lived and breathed, and their emotions and their actions were so very real.

The two stories are linked by a curiosity cabinet.  It was a lovely thing:  a casket, lined with fabric embroidered with images of island birds and flowers, and full of small treasures.

“Here is a miniature shuttle, prettily embroidered with gold, and with a few discoloured threads still attached. Here is  needlelace collar, very fine and floral. Here is a tiny pincushion, a painted silk fan and a coral teether. On another shelf is a hand mirror, intricately decorated with semi-precious stones in the shape of flowers: forget-me-nots and pansies. Alongside these precious keepsakes, she is puzzled to see a little collection of pebbles and shells and swansdown. Finally there is a scrap of yellowed paper, with a few words of incomprehensible writing: a letter? A poem?”

I thought for a moment of the cabinet of treasures in Elizabeth Goudge’s ‘The Scent of Water’ but I was too involved with the stories told in this book to think for long.

The ties between past and present are loose, and completely uncontrived. It’s simply that the same object is present in both periods, that there are some things that don’t change in time, and that there are gentle likenesses in the two stories.

The island Garve, is at the centre of both stories and it is captured perfectly. It is so easy to see the landscape, to feel the weather, to understand the difference in the air, in the way of life. The perceptions of two women, centuries apart, who came to the island, who formed relationships with island men,  and with the island itself, who feel the pull of an absent child, are lovely to read.

The writing is lovely too, catching the magic and the reality of life, with both small and bold brushstrokes.

“The island reminds her of those magic painting books. The shop here used to sell them. You would dip your brush in water and pale, clear colours would emerge from the page, as this green and blue landscape is emerging from the mist.”

The storytelling lives up into all of this; I was captivated, and I wasn’t entirely sure how the story would play out until the very last page.

It was the right ending but I was sorry to leave, and I would so love to go back to Garve and to the people I met there ….

The Heroes of Clone – or, The Wild Swan – by Margaret Kennedy

Back in the 1920s Margaret Kennedy’s second novel, ‘The Constant Nymph’, was a huge, huge success. It was one of the bestselling novels of the decade, it became a successful stage play and then Margaret Kennedy was called upon to write a screenplay. That led her to more work in Britain’s film industry, and that experience underpins this novel.

The Heroes of CloneRoy Collins had been smitten with photography and cinema since boyhood, and when he grew up he set about working his way up in the cinema business. He had secured a job working on scripts for BBB – Blech Bernstein British!

Dorothy Harding had been a Victorian novelist. She had never married but she had supported her family, writing moral tales that were popular in their day but would quickly be forgotten. Dorothy would have been forgotten, had her diary and her poems not come to light after her death. They revealed a very different side of the author, and literary critic Alec Mundy published a book suggesting that the ‘G’ Dorothy wrote of with such passion was the man that she had loved and her sister had married. Playwright Adelaide Lassiter had taken that theory and turned it into a grandly romantic film that had become a huge hit and was going to be turned into a film.

And that was where Roy came in!

He had an uneasy feeling about the job. He was disappointed that the Harding family were only interested in the income that that film would bring them, he was interested that the there was such love for the author in the countryside around her home, and he began to wonder if the critic and the playwright had got things wrong.

Roy was right. The story stepped back into the past to tell Dorothy’s story.

The earlier chapters had been wonderful. A lovely introduction, as Roy visited the schoolteacher aunt who had understood him better than his parents ever had and spoken with her about what he was doing, set the story up beautifully. The gentle but knowing satire of the film business was so very well down. And Harding family, living in genteel poverty in a run-down country house, quite oblivious to the fact that the world had changed, were captured beautifully.

16031525The interlude in the past was even finer; I thought that I might have met the loveliest Victorian novelist I had encountered before; I realised that Margaret Kennedy had planned her story so very, very cleverly.

Dorothy’s real story was much deeper, much more moving than the story that the critic and the playwright had spun; and yet it was understandable that they had drawn the conclusions that they did. Dorothy had grown from an imaginative child into an intelligent woman, but her life had been sheltered, she was naïve about so any things, and her family and others had exploited that, and her good nature.

Margaret Kennedy’s work is informed by her love of Jane Austen, but Dorothy’s story suggests that she knew and loved the Brontes too ….

Roy loved his job, but he knew that he had to do the right thing;  he had to clear Dorothy’s reputation of the romantic fantasy the poet and playwright had concocted, even if it did cost him his  job.

I loved that way that the story played out. The playwright was disappointed that the truth failed to live up to her romantic fantasy, but she decided that she had to represent her heroine honestly. That was lovely. The film company and the leading lady pulled back from the project. That was understandable. And the critic – who surely should have done a little more research and a little less speculating – was determined to suppress the truth and preserve his reputation. That was worrying.

Margaret Kennedy is wonderfully clear-sighted and unsentimental, and not at all judgemental. She just presents that characters and tells the story, and yet I knew that she knew. And I agreed.

I loved Roy, I loved Dorothy, and I loved the way their stories were woven together.

This proved to be a story for the head and the heart.

There is much to reward careful reading; lovely details, allusions, and themes that echo through Margaret Kennedy’s work.

And the story of an woman whose reputation many are ready to tarnish, who accepts what life offers her and finds peace is both moving and memorable.

Mirror of Danger (Come Back, Lucy) by Pamela Sykes

This is one of those books that I would love to talk about, would love more people to read, but I know that I can’t say very much at all without giving too much away.

The book was published in 1974. ‘Come Back, Lucy’ was the British title and ‘Mirror of Danger’ the American. There was a television adaptation in the late 1970s, Pamela Sykes wrote a number of books for young readers that were well liked and are fondly remembered, but I haven’t been able to find out anything else about her.

Thank goodness though for Open Library, where so many novels that were loved but have been forgotten find a home.

And so to the book.

I might express it as a recipe:

Mix equal amounts of:

– Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer
– The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
– Tryst by Elswyth Thane

 Dust with Victoriana and then leave it to rest in the 1970s …..

Lucy was an orphan and she had been raised by her Aunt Olive. Raised in the same way that Aunt Olive was raised in many years earlier. She was educated at home, she learned the domestic arts, she read Victorian novels, and in the evenings she played cribbage and made scrapbooks with her aunt.

She was happy, with just the two of them, but of course she was totally lost when her aunt died.

Mirror of DangerShe coped by daydreaming, by taking remembering happy times and building lovely fantasies.

Lucy was lucky. She had relations who had never met her, but they were ready to offer a home, to bring her up alongside their own children in the lovely Victorian house they were renovating.

They were lovely, but everything about their lives was alien to Lucy. It wasn’t that they were odd, they lived as people did in the 1970s, but Lucy wasn’t used to that at all. She didn’t like it at all. She didn’t understand them and they didn’t understand her.

She carried on daydreaming. And she thought that maybe she had dreamed up Alice; who was like her, who understood.

But Lucy hadn’t dreamed up Alice. She had lived –  a hundred years ago …..

Pamela Sykes tells this story so well. The characters were so believable, the details were so right, and I had to keep turning the pages.

I felt for Lucy from the start, as she was bereft, as she tried to fit so many of the things she loved from her home to her new life. And I loved so much about the way Aunt Olive had brought her up; I just wished that she hadn’t kept Lucy quite so close, that she had allowed her to see just a little of the modern world.

I understood her bewilderment in her new world, and her reluctance to let go of the way she had been taught to live.

Her family were good people, they really did their best to understand and to make Lucy part of their family, but at times she drove them to distraction.

But that wasn’t Lucy. That was Alice ….

The intensity of the story grows and grows.

And then, suddenly it is over. There is no final resolution, there are unanswered questions; but there is a sea change, and it is the right ending.

It leave the way open for a sequel; there is a sequel, but Open Library doesn’t have it and used copies are stupidly expensive.

But I think it might be better to just read this book, and then think about it, and the possibilities it opens up ….

The People In The Photo by Hélène Gestern

‘The People in the Photo’ arrived from France garlanded with literary awards. I’m inclined to be a little wary of books like that, books that are often too serious and too modern for my taste, but I fell in love with this particular book. It tells wonderfully moving and though-provoking human story; and it is so very east to read, to become involved, to keep turning the pages because you care about these people and you need to know what happens ….

Hélène didn’t remember her mother, who had died when she was an infant, and no one would ever speak of her. Her father, her step-mother, anyone who might have known her mother drew a careful veil over the past.

But Hélène found a picture, a picture of her mother as a very young woman, at a tennis tournament with two young men she did not recognise at all. Her need to know more was overwhelming, and so she placed an advertisement, asking for more information about the people in the photo.

Stéphane, a Swiss scientist who lived and worked in England, responded. He recognised one of the young men as his father, and that made him realise that he also had unanswered questions about his own history.

18528158Each hoped to learn more from the other, and so they continued to correspond – by letter, by email, by text message. Slowly and steadily they find out more about their parents, their history, and the relationship between them.

They are intelligent, they are articulate, and that illuminates their correspondence.  Their words bring Hélène and Stéphane to life, as real, complicated, living, breathing human beings. Two people drawn together by their need for  answers about their childhoods and the secrets of the past that their parents have kept from them.

The photographs they found were described so beautifully that I could see the past, could see the people in their photo. That was lovely, and it gave brought those people to life too, and set them apart from the story in the present and the questions being asked about them.

There were photographs from the Swiss mountains, the Brittany coast, and the streets of Paris ….

The plot was intricately and cleverly constructed. Sometimes questions led to answers, and sometimes they would lead to more questions. There were moments of understanding, moments of despair, moments of doubt, moments of hope, before the final pieces fell into place.

I loved that as well as the big picture there were so many little nuances. Little things like a change in salutation, a change in tone, made this correspondence so very real.

At times it was predictable, but sometimes people are predictable.

If I have reservations, it was because I felt that at times the story ran too smoothly. Sometimes answers came too easily, suspense was maintained artificially, there was a little too much good luck …..

But the story held me, because I believed in these people, I cared about them, and I was caught up with their emotional journey and their voyage of discovery from the first page to the last.

(Translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz)

The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson

In ‘The Tenth Gift’ Jane Johnson spins a story around an extraordinary piece of history:

In 1625 corsairs from North Africa sailed into Mount’s Bay, they entered a church and they took sixty men, women and children, to be sold as slaves.

That church might have been St Mary’s in Penzance, standing at the centre of Mounts Bay, just behind the harbour, clearly visible from the sea. My church, my mother’s church, my grandmother’s church ….

That drew me to the book, but it made me wary too. Because I knew that I’d know if she got it wrong. But I’m pleased to say that she didn’t get the things I knew wrong at all, she taught me some local history that I didn’t know, and that gave me so much confidence when she wrote about things that I didn’t, couldn’t know.

cornwall10Catherine Anne Tregenna, nicknamed Cat, was in service at Kenegie Manor, she was betrothed to her cousin Rob, but she wanted more than that. She was young, she was bright, she was spirited, and she hoped that her talent for embroidery would give her a chance to see more of life, more of the world. She had been given the chance to make an altar cloth for the Countess of Salisbury, and she hoped that might help her to win more commissions, and maybe even gain entry to Broderers Guild.

But her life changed when she and her mother went to church ….

Cat’s story was uncovered by Julia, in a second storyline set in the present day. When her lover left her he gave her antique leather-bound book.  ‘ Needle-Woman’s Glorie’  had been Cat’s book, and when she was torn from her home she began to keep a record of what she experienced, writing in between the embroidery patterns.

Julia followed Cat to Morocco – telling herself that she was researching the story she had uncovered, but also running away from the mess she had made of her life.

The two storylines worked well together, and the links and the mirroring of Cat’s and Julia’s lives didn’t feel contrived at all. But I liked Cat  far more than I liked Julia – it’s hard to care about a heroine who has been having an affair with her best friend’s husband – and her story was not nearly as strong as Cat’s. I would have liked the book more, I think, if the present day story had been pulled back to become a framing story, or even if it had not been there at all.

There was for than enough in Cat’s story – her life in Cornwall, her experiences when she was kidnapped, what happened in Cornwall after the raid – to make a fabulous book all by itself. There was a little dramatic licence taken, a little stretching of credibility, but not too much. Certainly no more than I could forgive when I found so much that was good.

The writing was wonderfully readable, the plotting was very well done, and I loved the links to real history and to the authors own story. I appreciated that she was even-handed, that she understood that the corsairs had reasons for doing what they were doing, that there was right and wrong on both sides, that there could be much common ground between people from different backgrounds and different cultures.

The evocation of time and place – of Cornwall and of Morocco – was so very vivid that it pulled me right into the story. And I couldn’t doubt for one moment that the author was writing of what she knew and what she loved.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

I read The Thirteenth Tale such a long time ago, back when it was a brand new book. I loved it, I read it quickly, and when I had to take it back to the library I bought a copy to keep. I had to, and I sat it on a shelf to wait for the particular someday when it would be the right time to read it again to come along.

It was still there when a BBC film came along towards the end of last year. I liked it, I thought that it was as good as it could be given the constrained running time, but it was just pulled fragments out of my memory, and I remembered that there was so much more.

And so it seemed that someday had come.

But I didn’t read, I listened instead, to a wonderful reading by Jenny Agutter. That made perfect sense, for a book that is about the magic of stories, storytelling, stories within stories, stories about stories ….. and it pulled so many more memories out of that particular corner of my mind where books live.

“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”

‘The Thirteeneth Tale’  is a book  that draws upon a wealth of others to make a richly embroidered story of its own.

Take:

      • A large part of ‘Jane Eyre’
      • A ghostly echo of ‘The Turn of the Screw’
      • A solution of ‘The Lord of the Flies’
      • A dash of ‘Wuthering Heights’
      • A dusting of ‘If on a Winters Night a Traveller’
      • More than a hint of ‘The Secret Garden’

…. and you are on the way to understanding.

‘The Thirteenth Tale’ isn’t the perfect book. It’s a little uneven, its a little too implausible, and it is a little too full of influences for there to be much space left for anything truly original. But I loved it anyway.

After all, you don’t love people because they are perfect, but because they are perfect for you and what you are.  You love them for what they are, because you recognise something in them, and simply because you do ….

And so it was for me and this book; I loved it for its style, for its ideas, for its influences, and, most of all, I loved it for its wonderful understanding of the importance of books and stories.

The story began with Margaret Lea,  who worked in her father’s antiquarian bookshop and aspired to writing literary biography, receiving a hand-written letter from an England’s most famous novelist. She was dying, and she wanted Margaret to write her biography.

ThirteenthtaleVida Winter had always evaded questions about her past, by spinning a different story every time she was asked, and she had succeeded in keeping the secrets of her early life hidden. Margaret wondered why she wanted to talk, whether she would tell her the truth, and why she had chosen her when she could have had anyone she wanted.

She had never read any of Vida Winter’s books, but when she picked up her father’s rare copy of ‘Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation’ she was captivated. And she was curious. Why were there only twelve stories? Why were the final pages of the book blank? And where was the thirteenth tale?

Miss Winter told Margaret the thirteenth tale.

It was a story of a troubled family with dark secrets, of a crumbling manor house in the middle of an declining estate, of children growing up wild, and of the dreadful consequences of all of that.

It was a wonderful gothic tale, wonderfully imagined, beautifully described, and quite gloriously told.

Margaret was fascinated, and so was I. It was a wrench every time I was pulled out of that story and back into the room where the story was being told.

But the two contrasting narratives worked together very well, and letters and diaries added more layers to the story

Margaret questioned the truth of the story she was told. She searched for proof, and in doing so she had to come to terms with her own past, and tell her own story.

“Everybody has a story. It’s like families. You might not know who they are, might have lost them, but they exist all the same. You might drift apart or you might turn your back on them, but you can’t say you haven’t got them. Same goes for stories.

I was rather less taken with Margaret’s story than I was with Miss Winter’s, but I understood that it had to play out as it did.

I loved the themes that were threaded through the two stories – identity, loss, adoption, reconciliation – and most of all I loved the bookishness, and the understanding the importance of stories that underpinned everything.

I have no more words, just two more quotations to cherish:

“All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes — characters even — caught in the fibres of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.”

“My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with the truth itself. What succor, what consolation is there in the truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney? When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails? No. When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don’t expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid. What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie.”