Told in Winter by Jon Godden

This was not quite the winter’s tale that I was expecting, and it’s a difficult one to write about without giving too much away, but I shall try …..

Imagine, if you will, a house set deep in the country, snowbound in the depths of winter. Two men live there. Jerome is an author, a novelist and a playwright, who needs the peace of the country and a country life to be able to write. It is his house, and Peter works for him. Peter who was his batman when the world was at war, who was horribly burned, and wanted to escape the stares of the curious, and to be occupied and busy.


The two men understood each other, and they each had the home and the lifestyle that suited them.

Sylvie, their young German Shepherd dog was their pride and joy. She had the freedom to roam in the surrounding woodland, and she knew that she was welcome to sit quietly with Jerome, as he worked in his study, or to settle with Peter in the warmth of the kitchen.

It was a household in perfect harmony, and Jon Godden demonstrated that so very well, simply by noticing the details of their home, and of what they said and did. She showed such a wonderful understanding of what made a house and a home, and of everyday human psychology.

That harmony, that balance, was upset by an uninvited guest. Una was a young actress, and she had set her sights on making a place for herself in Jerome’s world. He was reluctant to welcome her but her car was stuck in a drift, and her youth, her naivety, her greed for life quickly won over Jerome.

It didn’t win over Peter and Sylvie who were pushed away; Una didn’t like dogs, and she saw Peter as servant. It wasn’t that they were right and that Una was wrong; it was that they saw things differently, that they didn’t understand each other, and that Una was too young, too insensitive.

Peter understood the situation, he was prepared to bide his time, but of course Sylvie couldn’t.

A dog can’t understand why her master no longer has time for her, why her bed has been moved from her master’s bedroom to the landing, why the interloper has all so much of the attention that used to be hers …..

Una’s lack of understanding, her jealousy, her fear, lead to a terrible tragedy. But it wasn’t all her fault, not by any means.

Jon Godden winds up the tension slowly and steadily, with perfect care and attention to detail. I knew that something was going to break, and something – maybe. I almost knew and I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t.

This is the second domestic psychological novel – a clumsy term I know, but I can’t think of a better one – by Jon Godden that I have read, and I have to say that she was very good at them. She understood the importance of house, how much it says about characters who called those houses home. And she understood how to tell a story to gradually reveal the full complexity of those characters. She wasn’t a comfortable writer, but she was a clever one.

And Sylvie’s story is as well told, as well understood, as the story of the thee humans. I had some minor concerns, but breeds are different, individual dogs are different, and it could well be no more than that. It is not a happy story, but it is an honest one, and the writing is always clear and none of the details are gratuitous.

but now I find myself torn between wanting to read more of Jon Godden’s work, because she was such a gifted and interesting writer, and being relieved that the library has no more of her books, because her stories are so very unsettling …..

The House by the Sea by Jon Godden

I spotted Jon Godden’s name on a book that she co-wrote with her sister, and I was curious to know more. I learned that her real name was Ruth, that she was much less prolific that he sister, and much less driven by her nature or by her circumstances, but the she had published a handful of novels. Any book called ‘The House by the Sea’ would have caught my eye – I love books centred around houses, I love the sea – but this one was set in Cornwall as well, and that made it irresistible.

I also learned that the Godden sisters were very different writers.

“The house was a firm white shape on the changing colours of the field. Under the canopy of cloud the light was very clean and pure; every detail of cliff and field and house stood out sharply; the pales of the fence, and oblong of red earth where the front garden was going to be, even the aerial on the roof. She put her parcels on the step and say down on the stile to rest. ‘How real it looks,’ she thought. ‘There it sits as large as life, complete to the last detail, as real as money can make it. But it’s not surprising that it seems to me, for all its solidness, to be a dream. What is it after all except a dream come true.'”

When her father died, leaving her a small legacy, Edwina was free for the first time. She wasn’t tied to him, she could shake off the rather domineering friend she had shared a flat with during the war, and live as she wanted. And what she wanted was a new life in a new place where she could be entirely herself, and a home where she could live as she wanted, and have her own things around her.

house by the seaIt was lovely to watch Edwina quietly taking pleasure in things others take for granted. Using her favourite china, choosing exactly what she wanted in the village shop, walking her dog along the cliffs … It was lovely, but I could also see that Edwina was brittle, that her world could so easily be rocked, because she was still the woman who had been dominated by others for so many years.

It was clear that something was going to happen. And something did.

An injured man, a fugitive, stumbled into Edwina’s porch. He saw what she was, that she lived alone in an isolated house, some way from a community that barely knew her, and so he decided that he would stay as long as he needed to, that she would not give him away.

Edwina becomes his hostage, but, as they coexist in her home, their situation draws something out of her and something out of him. A relationship grows between them, but that relationship is as brittle as Edwina, and as time passes, as Edwina learns more about Ross, it is inevitable that it will break.

When it does break, when one of them forces the situation, the consequences are shattering, and Edwina’s dream seems broken too ….

This is not a comfortable book. The feeling of uncertainty that was present and the start of the book quickly grows into something rather more menacing, and it is difficult to feel entirely sympathetic towards either of the protagonists. Yes, they are fallible, complex, believable human beings, but they are largely responsible for their own failings, for failing to take responsibility for themselves and their lives soon enough. I could feel a degree of compassion, of course I could, but I couldn’t warm to either of them.

The story works though, because Jon Godden understood the psychology of her characters and of their relationship, and she drew out the full complexity of their situation. Edwina was brave, she pushed the situation, she drew Ross’s story out of him. But she lacked the confidence, the judgement, the social skills, all of the things that people whose lives have been dominated by others lack. And, though she couldn’t admit it, she found something that her life lacked in her relationship with Ross. It also revealed truths that she had never found the courage to acknowledge.

It’s difficult to explain but I understood completely when I was safe in the hands of an author who clearly understood the importance of nuances, significant moments, and telling details. That made the situation, and the complex relationship, for all it was a little contrived, utterly compelling.  The story played out beautifully, and the setting really made the story sing. The house itself was wonderful; it lived and breathed, I could see it, I could feel its oppressive atmosphere; such a contrast to the  Cornish coast outside.

‘The House by the Sea’ held me from start to finish.


It was Jo’s idea last year, and we’re doing it again this year.

Celebrate the first six months of the reading year by putting six books into each of six categories.

It’s not quite as easy as it looks. I tweaked the categories last year to suit my reading style, and I’ve tweaked them a little more this year to make sure that the right books got in.

Here they are!


Six Books that tugged at my heartstrings

The Night Rainbow by Claire King
The Lonely by Paul Gallico
A Perfect Gentle Knight by Kit Pearson
The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery
The Young Clementina by D E Stevenson
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole


Six books illuminated by wonderful voices from the twentieth century

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
The Fool Of The Family by Margaret Kennedy
A Pixy in Petticoats by John Trevena
Mariana by Monica Dickens
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton


Six books that took me to another time and place

Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household by Kate Hubbard
This January Tale by Bryher
The Love-Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel
In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda
The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow
A Commonplace Killing by Siân Busby


Six books that introduced me to interesting new authors

Death of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof by E.A. Dineley
The First Book Of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz
Telling the Bees by Peggy Hesketh
The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter
Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes
The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait


Six books I must mention that don’t fit nicely into any category

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
Yew Hall by L.M. Boston
Orkney by Amy Sackville
A Five Year Sentence by Bernice Rubens
The Asylum by John Harwood
Perfect by Rachel Joyce


Six Books I started in the first six months of the year and haven’t quite finished … yet …

The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland
The House on the Cliff by Jon Godden
Elijah’s Mermaid by Essie Fox
The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton by Diane Atkinson
Warpaint by Alicia Foster
The Rich House by Stella Gibbons


Do think about putting your own sixes – it’s a great way of perusing your reading, and I’d love to read more lists.