Book Review: Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase – secrets and lies in an evocative Cornish setting

I love these novels set in old English country houses, specially when family secrets, heartbreak and mystery are added to the mix. Old houses can add a Gothic quality, as it is with Black Rabbit Hall, although that’s not the house’s real name. Pencraw’s a dilapidated mansion on the Cornish coast, subject to storms and heady summer heat and it’s the home to the Alton family when they’re not in London.

The young Altons are a blessed with loving parents – beautiful Nancy who hails from New York, and Hugo who is struggling to maintain the old house, with its leaky roof and unreliable floorboards. The couple are devoted to each other, and adore their kids: little Kitty, nature-loving Barney, fifteen-year-old Toby and his twin sister Amber who narrates most of the story. Their world comes crumbling down when Nancy dies suddenly in a riding accident, and the children become more wild and unkempt.

Amber does her best to fill in as a mother figure to the two younger children while Toby acts more weirdly than ever. He has a fixation with what to do if civilisation comes to an end – it’s 1968 and the Cold War and the nuclear arms race are all go. He’s a survivalist but not in a good way and argues constantly with his father. It doesn’t come as a surprise when Hugo invites an old flame to visit but it’s a shock when she arrives with her seventeen-year-old son, Lucien. Caroline is the opposite of their warm, spontaneous mother, but she’s got money and might just save Black Rabbit Hall.

The story flips between Amber’s narration and Lorna’s some thirty odd years later. Lorna and her fiancé Jon are looking for a wedding venue, and Amber has a distant memory of visiting Black Rabbit Hall as a child with her mother. There is an emotional pull here for Lorna as her mother has recently died, lacing the memory with nostalgia. Finding the house almost defeats them, but it’s also a shock when they get there and it seems the Hall is not quite ready for hosting weddings, despite what the website says.

Jon and Amber look set to fall out over the Hall, Amber still excited about finding the perfect setting for the wedding, Jon more realistic having noticed the general state of disrepair. Then there is the lack of staff, the house inhabited by the frail and elderly Mrs Alton and Dill, her flustered general factotum. Amber is talked into visiting for a weekend to help make up her mind – no pressure! What she experiences when she’s at the Hall is more about disturbing distant memories and uncovering family secrets that giving the place a trial run. What is it about Black Rabbit Hall that seems to prod deep into her consciousness?

The story slowly comes together as we go back through the years to fill in the gaps as the Alton children have to deal with family upheaval while still grieving for Nancy. Lorna also teases out hints from the past which make her doubt her future with Jon. In each narrative there is a gathering storm and sense of impending doom, which has you galloping through the book to find out what happens. It all comes to a startling and intense ending but there is resolution as well.

For me the book had hints of Daphne du Maurier, not only with the Cornish setting, but with the cruel, Mrs Danvers-like malefactor and the Gothic qualities of the house. Chase also does a great job with the family dynamics, particularly the way she writes about siblings and the intense connections between the twins, the pressure on the older sister to keep things together and the difficulty for her to be her own person.

Black Rabbit Hall is the perfect read if you like old country house mysteries and evocative settings. The characters are easy to empathise with, honestly they break your heart, and there is an interesting dichotomy between long summer days where nothing seems to happen and events hurtling characters into rash behaviour. This is my second Eve Chase novel – I’d previously enjoyed The Wilding Sisters – and it didn’t disappoint. I’ll be heading back for more. Black Rabbit Hall (which incidentally won the Saint Maur en Poche prize for best foreign fiction) gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Reindeer Hunters by Lars Mytting – the second book in an gripping historical trilogy

It can be tricky reviewing the middle book in a trilogy without giving away key events from the previous book. I read the first book earlier in the year and was captivated by the story of a small town in remote Norway, the ill-fated love-triangle, and the legend of the conjoined twin sisters and the church bells made in their honour.

So when The Reindeer Hunters came out, I was eager to pick up where the story left off. I will do my best not to throw out any spoilers, but if you want to read a spell-binding historical series, ignore this post just in case and get cracking with The Bell in the Lake. (Also, as I might have mentioned before, DO NOT read the publisher’s blurb for The Reindeer Hunters if you haven’t yet read The Bell in the Lake as it contains a jaw-dropping spoiler!)

In The Reindeer Hunters, the story has moved on a couple of decades to 1903 and Pastor Kai Schweigaard has become well attuned to the ways of his parish. He has quite a few regrets over events of the previous book but is a kindly man and wise. He formerly struggled to deal with local superstitions, but of late has been obsessed with finding the Hekne weave. This is a tapestry created by the twin Hekne sisters in the early 1600s, hidden away because of its unpopular Doomsday theme and said to foretell the fate of the last village pastor. It is one thing he can do for the woman he loved and lost, particularly as he has fallen out with her son.

Jehans Hekne lives on a small holding, working the land of his tyrant of an uncle to whom he has promised a reindeer. To do this he must set out on forays in the wilderness with his 1848 chamber charger rifle. He lives a simple life but dreams of a better one, or at least a better gun, when he meets another hunter, Victor Harrison, a well-healed Englishman. The two lay claim to having shot the same reindeer, but good-humouredly strike up a bargain: Victor gets his trophy and Jehans the means to get a new gun. A connection sparks between the two men who are oddly similar in spite of the differences of class and nationality.

The story weaves between the three characters with the legend of the bell in the lake hovering in the background. As the story goes, the bell can only be raised from its watery home by two Hekne brothers with no siblings born between them. But how can such myths still survive at a time when change is coming to this forgotten valley? There’s talk of rail opening up the country, and Jehans, who owes his education to the pastor, can’t help thinking about the possibilities of electricity. Victor is mesmerised by flight.

The Reindeer Hunters is another brilliant read. I thought it might be one of those middle-of-a-trilogy books that languishes from the need to fill in a chunk of plot between the promising beginning of the first book before things crank up to a heart-pounding finale in the third. But if anything, I like this book better than the first. It seems to strike a good balance between big events and the development of its characters.

As the story rolled on towards the end, I couldn’t put it down, quite desperate to know how things would turn out for Kai, Jehans and Victor. If things are going to crank up from here in the last book, I’m definitely going to need a cup of tea and lie down afterwards. If you love historical fiction, this trilogy really is a must-read. The Reindeer Hunters gets a rare five stars from me.

Book Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt – a heart-warming debut that will have you cheering

I had no idea what to expect with this novel, which includes among its three main narrators an octopus. Marcellus the GPO (great Pacific octopus) inhabits a tank at an aquarium where he has a good view of humanity as it comes to peer at him. He may be missing sea life in the raw, but he’s learnt a lot about people, their weird sense of humour, their ugly eating habits, their lack of perspicacity. He hasn’t a lot of respect for the human race as a whole, but forges a bond with Tova, the seventy-year-old cleaner who each evening wipes the smears from the glass of his enclosure and at one point rescues him from disaster.

Tova is at a crossroads. She has been recently widowed but still rattles around in the house her Swedish father built, which is full of memories. The loss of her son at the age of eighteen is something she’s learnt to live with, if only she could understand what happened on the night he disappeared. Her friends think it’s time for her to find somewhere smaller, but maybe it’s time to think about a retirement home. After all there’s no one to take care of her when she gets too old to manage herself. However, the chatty Scot, Ethan, who runs the local store would be very sorry to see her go.

Meanwhile, hundreds of kilometres away, in California, Cameron is in a bad way. At thirty, he can’t seem to hold down a job, his Jeep has been repossessed and he seems to be running out of chances with his girlfriend. He’s bitter and resentful, still smarting since his mother abandoned him when he was nine. When his Auntie Jeanne gives him a box of his mother’s things, a lack of options has him heading north to Washington State in search of his father. With luck he’s the wealthy property developer Simon Brinks and Cameron can touch him for year’s of child support.

Over the course of the novel, all four characters’ stories collide and Cameron, Ethan, Tova and even Marcellus will help each other get to the truth. It isn’t difficult to guess what’s going on and the author uses dramatic irony to keep the reader turning the pages. You want to shout at the characters, especially Cameron, who has a lot of growing up to do, but also Tova, telling them not to be so hasty, or have another look at that clue. Marcellus is in the same boat as us, figuring things out long before the humans do, but then octopuses are remarkably bright creatures.

In an odd way Marcellus is the hero of the tory, and how Van Pelt makes this work is really charming. He’s a talented escapologist – just why are so many sea cucumbers disappearing? wonders his keeper – and a collector of glittering trifles. But time is not on his side and this adds to the tension.

Remarkably Bright Creatures is an altogether heart-warming read, well put-together with some interesting facts about sea creatures sprinkled through the story. I loved the North-West Pacific coastal setting, a fitting place for an aquarium, and the nosy but kindly locals. I’ll be looking out for Van Pelt’s next book. This one gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: French Braid by Anne Tyler – a warmly insightful novel capturing the little cruelties of family life

A new Anne Tyler novel means a new family. This time we’ve got the Garretts: Mercy and Robin, parents to Alice, Lily and David. Again we’re in Baltimore which in Tyler’s world always comes across as a sensible, solid kind of city, oozing with good old-fashioned American values. But then that might be because the scenes are mostly in homes, often around a meal table.

French Braid begins with the next generation when Serena and her boyfriend James are waiting for a train to take them from Philadelphia to Baltimore. Serena thinks she’s spotted her cousin, but isn’t sure. She won’t even go up to Nicholas to see if it’s him, which James finds perplexing. How can you not know your own cousin? What kind of family is this? It’s a simple snapshot from ordinary life that displays something deeper, something Tyler does brilliantly. Have a look at the opening scene of The Accidental Tourist for the way Tyler shows a marriage in trouble. The Garretts seem to have become fragmented over the years, going for long stretches of time without meeting or checking in on each other.

Flip back to 1959 and the Garretts – Robin, Mercy and co. are off to the the lake for a summer holiday. You can tell they don’t do this often as Robin wears his work shoes and black socks when walking to the lake in his bathers. His mission is to teach David, a tender boy of around seven, to swim. His older sister Alice is helpful but bossy, and fifteen-year-old Lily is ensconced in a holiday romance. Mercy spends so much time painting at the kitchen table, she doesn’t notice what’s going on with her kids.

By the end of the holiday, Lily is heart-broken and David is withdrawn. Lily gets over the heartbreak, but David seems to withdraw further through the book, into his student years and beyond. Meanwhile, Mercy sets herself up with a studio a mere walk from home, complete with a divan and finds a new freedom as an artist. We’re through the sixties and out the other side by now, and the times they are a-changing. Tyler describes the fine line between loving your family and wanting to be your own person.

Morris. Mercy filed the name in her memory. So many unexpected people seemed to edge into a person’s life, once that person had children.

Like many of her books, French Braid appears to be a fairly simple story, full of everyday events that anyone might recognise. And while you don’t always like what the characters do, you can’t help warming to them as people. They could be members of your own family. Tyler has that knack of showing them in scenes full of humour, and yet simmering beneath it all is the potential for heartbreak. The burdens of little cruelties that the characters carry with them from childhood.

French Braid is a small book but perfectly formed. Everything is pitched just right – the naturalness of the dialogue, the plotting which rips through the years but still seems to keep you close to the characters, the way the things that are never talked about are at least as important than the things that are. It’s another gem from Tyler and gets a five out of five from me.

Book Review: Little Wing by Freya North – a heart tugging drama with an evocative Scottish Island setting

I was quite likely drawn to this novel because of the setting – I think I might have mentioned my thing for Scottish Islands before. A big chunk of Little Wing is set on Harris, one of the Outer Hebrides. As the character of Dougie says ‘the Outer Hebrides are like this one-hundred-and-thirty-mile stone windbreak taking the brunt of all that the Atlantic is hurling. In winter the raindrops are like ‘bulls’ bollocks’. But there’s also a ‘wild, terrifying beauty.’ What’s not to like?

In 1969, Harris is where Florence is sent to have her baby. She is sixteen years old and her mother has disowned her. Luckily her step-father steps in and offers a solution. He has a brother on the island where she can escape all the tut-tutting and shame of her condition. We get briefly swept into Florence’s world of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles, mini skirts and the psychedelic designs Florence creates in her room.

The story switches forwards to 2005 where we meet Nell, who has a lot on her plate. She co-runs a café where the staff are all special needs. Danny, AJ and co. are so lovingly drawn and what they lack as professional waitstaff is compensated for in charm and enthusiasm. I wish we had a café like this where I live. Nell also visits Frank, an elderly man who needs a hand with meals, but who is also a good friend. If only Nell’s mother still recognised her. Wendy suffers from early-onset dementia and lives in a care home. Single and in her mid-thirties, Nell’s life seems to be all work and caring for others.

Similarly struggling is Dougie, working hard in London as a photographer, not the creative portraiture he excelled at as a student, but catalogue shots for cheap clothing or gardening hardware. Between work and pounding a treadmill at the gym, he rarely has time to return his dad’s phone calls. Dougie’s dad, Gordon, is from Harris, so you know that’s where our lost and bewildered characters will venture next.

When Nell finds her mother’s wayward memory throws up doubts about her own provenance, the answers could be discovered in a remote part of Scotland. Dougie, in need of a break and long overdue for a visit home makes the trip to Harris too. And although Dougie and Nell see each other over the days that follow, it is a while before any sparks ignite. There is however a strong romantic thread to the story, as well as tragedy, both of which are enriched by the wild beauty of a Harris setting.

I really enjoyed Little Wing, named for one of Florence’s favourite Jimi Hendrix’s songs; it’s a light read but full of feeling. You can’t help warming towards the characters: brave and idealistic young Florence, kind-hearted but also kind of fun Nell and Dougie with his quiet sensitivity and Heathcliffe hair. But the true hero of the story is the island of Harris itself with its history, traditions, wild open spaces, birdlife and weather. Not to mention the friendly islanders. You’ll be trawling the Internet for pictures like I did and dreaming about booking a holiday.

I haven’t read anything by Freya North before, but have since discovered she was at the vanguard of the chick lit genre when her first book came out in 1996 – this novel is her fifteenth. I recommend Little Wing for when you want a cosy, light, warm-hearted read. This one gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley – another excellent twisty read in an atmospheric setting

Lucy Foley really knows how to conjure an interesting setting. We’ve had a wedding venue on an island in The Guest List, luxury accomodation cut off by snow in The Hunting Party and here a gated apartment building in a posh part of Paris. I can see how her mind works. She’s seen a setting and wondered who lives or works there, like we all do, and then wondered what if there was a murder.

In The Paris Apartment, Jess is on the run from her job in England. She’s done something she shouldn’t have and hopped on the train for Paris to crash with her brother Ben. The two were separated as children when their mother killed herself. Ben who could charm anybody was quickly adopted and enjoyed the spoils of doting parents and a good education. Jess however, much younger and evidently not so charming, went from foster family to foster family, forever scarred by being the one to find their mother’s dead body. Her education has been minuscule which is why she’s been working in a dodgy bar.

Jess turns up at Ben’s Paris address, an apartment in a surprisingly luxurious building with an internal courtyard garden. The old lady concierge isn’t very welcoming and Ben isn’t home. But Jess is street-wise and manages to get inside anyway, fashioning her cheap hoop earrings into a device to pick the apartment lock. Inside, still no Ben, only a cat with blood on its fur. And it looks as if someone has scrubbed something off the floor using bleach. Jess begins to suspect the worst.

The gated apartment building offers a select bunch of suspects who Jess slowly gets to know. Nobody’s very friendly and nobody seems to know what Ben’s been up to lately. He’s a journalist so we can only suppose he was snooping around too much. The only one who is at all friendly is Nick, Ben’s friend who helped him secure this flat. Ben and Nick were at university together.

There’s also Sophie in the penthouse flat with her little dog and who is much nicer to the dog than people. She’s a high-maintenance middle-aged woman married to Jacques, who is mostly away on business – something to do with wine if the cellar down in the basement is anything to go by. There’s broody, menacing Antoine who frightens Jess when she first arrives. That leaves two young girls who share a flat: sensitive art student Mimi and her party-animal pal, Camille.

The story switches between the characters and backwards into the past to portray a picture of Ben, the charming Englishman interloper, from various points of view. Everyone seems to be afraid of something and they all seem to be hiding something. Just as everyone seems to have pieces missing from the puzzle. It’s going to have to be Jess who sorts it all out but who can she trust? The reader is all too aware that Ben has likely paid a price for asking too many questions. Thank goodness Jess’s got a bit of help from foreign correspondent Theo, who looks like a pirate but seems to be otherwise trustworthy because Jess is in way over her head.

Lucy Foley delivers another clever twisty mystery. How she manages to keep track of who knows what and a backwards and forward timeline suggests a pinboard covered in spreadsheets and graphs. Agatha Christie would have been impressed. Jess is the perfect character for Foley’s amateur sleuth because she is so completely at sea in this sophisticated Parisian setting, is barely educated and thoroughly naive. Instead she relies on gut instinct, driven by love for her brother and a determination for justice. The Paris Apartment comes together nicely to create a light but very satisfying read and gets a four out of five from me.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout – another foray into the world of Lucy Barton

Olive Kitteridge is the book that won Elizabeth Strout the Pulitzer Prize and the eponymous character has turned up other books, more recently in Olive, Again. Many readers love Olive for her frankness, her daring to be difficult and determination to be herself. However Lucy Barton is just as interesting. We’ve met her before too, so Elizabeth Strout has had plenty of time to get to know her and explore what makes her tick.

Lucy ‘comes from nothing’ according to her late mother-in-law, Catherine, and it’s true in a way. Lucy’s parents were terribly poor – her father suffering from PTSD following his war service; her mother, hardened by her situation, showed no affection for her children. Lucy had escaped her small town by winning a scholarship to college and has rarely returned, making a name for herself as a writer and now living in New York.

But it’s Lucy’s marriages that are the main focus of this book. Her first was to William, and it is with William that she has two grown up daughters. But William has a roving eye, and as soon as the girls finished their schooling, Lucy left him. William has remarried more than once and when his latest, much younger wife leaves him for another man, he decides to look into his family background. He has recently discovered his mother had left a baby daughter as well as her first husband before her marriage to William’s father. He plans a visit to Maine to meet this sister and asks Lucy, now a widow, to accompany him.

When William met me at LaGuardia Airport I saw him from afar and I saw that his khakis were too short. A little bit this broke my heart. He wore loafers, and his socks were blue, not a dark blue and not a light blue, and they showed a few inches until his khakis covered them. Oh William, I thought. Oh William!

The novel follows the road trip William and Lucy make through Maine, throwing up facts about William’s family and the complicated woman that was his mother. There are a few surprises here, but the book also delves into Lucy’s own marriage to William, which was often problematic for her as she had no sense of how to be a wife. She describes her more recent marriage to David as easier – the two being similar in having emerged from a childhood where there was no popular culture at home, no television or radio or any sense of what the world outside was like.

Written in the first person from Lucy’s point of view, we get a very intimate look at how Lucy thinks, her interactions with others and her relationships with her girls. The book is peppered throughout with her dialogue with William which is very like a couple who know each other well with all the gentle bickering and home truths. There are glimpses of Lucy’s relationship with Catherine, who buys her a a set of golf clubs for her birthday when she expressly asked for a book voucher – but Catherine always thought she knew best.

Oh William! is a short novel, often humorous and very real. It has a gentle storyline and while there are no twists or cliff-hanger chapter endings it kept me reading because every page is such a joy. The writing is so straight-forward and yet it feels crafted. By the end of the book you know Lucy and William so well, they could be your family. I think this is Elizabeth Strout’s secret weapon and why I love her books so much – they leave you with this feeling of warmth as if you’ve just been to visit a favourite aunt. Oh William! gets a four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Beloved Girls by Harriet Evans – an atmospheric and twisty page-turner

I really like books where there’s an atmospheric house in the country and a dark family secret or two. Harriet Evans delivers all of this in The Beloved Girls, but throws in a pagan ritual dating back to the 1700s. What more could you wish for?

The story takes us to London where we meet Catherine Christophe who in her late forties has an enviable life. She’s done well in her career as a barrister, has two well-adjusted teenage children and a happy marriage to Davide, who she met in Toulouse on her gap year. Life had been going swimmingly but lately Catherine has felt uneasy about losing a murder case, where a boy around her daughter’s age has been convicted for killing another boy at his school. He’s not a very nice kid, that’s obvious, but he’s still a kid and he was bullied mercilessly. And then she starts seeing a figure from her past, someone who should be dead.

Switching back a few decades, there’s the story of Jane L’estrange. Jane dearly loves her father, a charismatic but complex man with PTSD from the war and difficulties holding down a job. When her mother leaves them, Jane is sent to visit the Hunters at the Vanes, a quirky country mansion. Jane soon bonds with Kitty Hunter and would love to stay longer, but there are some awkward family dynamics – a very unpleasant father, Charles, knowns as PT for pater familias, the product of the worst kind of public school, and his much younger wife, Sylvia, who has a mysterious connection to Jane’s father.

When she’s eighteen, Jane returns to the Vanes for the summer after the sudden death of her father, her mother having returned from Spain to sell up and arrange Jane’s future. Kitty’s aloof, her brother Joss is smarmy, while Charles is planning for Jane to take part in the yearly honey gathering ritual. She’s to be one of the Beloved Girls, dressed in green, part of a procession that will harvest honey from bees who have built hives in the derelict chapel on the Hunters’ property. The ritual was begun centuries before by the vicar of the day, a sinister man whose flock avoided church. This is a wild coast, where shipwrecks were frequent and the locals enjoyed the spoils of wrecking and scavenging.

Slowly the puzzle pieces come together as the story switches backwards in time, but it’s that particular summer, when Jane’s eighteen, that is the centre of the action. Of course there’s a heatwave to make everything seem more menacing and even the bees seem to be swarming angrily. You can tell things aren’t going to end well. Surely it’s time for some characters to get their comeuppance. The misogyny endured by Kitty and her mother from both Charles and Joss and his friends, who attend the same awful public school, is ever present.

Meanwhile Catherine Christophe isn’t faring too well and you can’t help wondering if her perfect world isn’t going to crumble down around her. So there’s plenty to keep you turning the pages as the past catches up with the present. But there’s a lot to think about too. Evans has a fair bit to say about the privileged classes that hold sway, keeping things the same, generation after generation. They depend upon a world where women know their place and money talks.

All in all, this is a fairly satisfying read, somewhat escapist but not as frivolous as it might be. The characters are interesting and flawed, very flawed often, but then they they are victims too. The ending is somewhat open to interpretation which works well here. Perhaps the middle sagged a little as one hot day bleeds into the next, but in a way this adds to the simmering tension. All the same, I found myself skimming a little. The Beloved Girls is a three and a half out of five read from me.

Book Review: A Woman Made of Snow by Elisabeth Gifford – a dual-narrative of family secrets and Arctic adventure

Here’s a new novel from an author with a knack for dramatic Scottish settings. A Woman Made of Snow weaves together two stories, the first set just after World War Two. Caro has a history degree from Cambridge and a new baby. She had envisaged a new life with hubby Alasdair in London, both of them with university posts, but little Felicity came too soon. Now she’s stuck near Dundee with an interfering mother-in-law who keeps dropping in with well-meaning advice. Caro feels she has to have things tidy all the time just in case Martha appears.

Rents in town are expensive so the young family have a cottage on the family estate. When a pipe bursts and the cottage is flooded, there’s nothing for it but to move in with Martha who’s rattling around on her own in a picturesque castle. A skeleton uncovered by builders after the flood sends shockwaves, and Caro and Martha can’t help wondering if it isn’t Alasdair’s great-grandmother whose name has been scratched out of all family records. Caro uses her skills as a researcher to uncover the story of the woman and speculates who the skeleton might be.

Meanwhile the story switches back to the late 1880s and we meet Charlotte who is in love with childhood friend, Oliver. Only Oliver is in love with Charlotte’s sister. A night on the tiles to soothe an aching heart leads Oliver to sign up as ship’s surgeon on the Narhwal, a whaling ship setting off for the Arctic. How the two plot threads are connected to the missing great-grandmother and the skeleton in the garden make for a pacy plot unravelling to a dramatic climax.

While this all adds up to an enthralling story, Gifford takes time to develop a number of themes, including the awkwardness that often arises between a devoted mother and her daughter-in-law. There’s some class snobbery – Alasdair’s sister Pippa describes Caro as ‘suburban’ as if that’s one of the worst things imaginable. You really feel for Caro, missing her career, managing a baby in a chilly castle, and not fitting in. Other issues such as colonisation and racism get a look in, revealed gently through the story.

But mostly I raced through the book to find out what happened. There’s tragedy of course, not surprising since there’s a body in the garden, and my heart-strings were well and truly tugged. However I couldn’t help feel that this might have been a more powerful novel if the two malefactors in it – one for each timeframe – weren’t quite so obviously twisted, and the ending a little less all tied up and perfect. It’s just a small complaint, as overall this is a solid, entertaining novel, but I feel a little disappointed. So it’s a three and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin – sibling relationships under the spotlight

This is one of those books that you think will be about one thing and it turns out to be something completely different. The back-cover description talks about a tragedy one fateful summer, but exactly how that tragedy evolves doesn’t emerge until much later. And then there’s the title. Mmmm. I guess it might be true that we all read a different book when we pick up the same novel, but The Last Romantics is beguiling on several levels.

Not that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, I’m quite keen to be beguiled now and again, and The Last Romantics is also very appealing. The story opens in 2079, when we meet Fiona Skinner for the first time. She’s a very elderly famous poet onstage at a writer’s event before an audience of adoring fans. The young interviewer asks Fiona about the origin of her most famous love poem, a question she’s avoided for years. But it takes her back to the beginning, when she was a young child and the novel slips into the distant past.

We’re back to 1981, and Fiona describes her family following the death of the father. Fiona’s only four, but her brother, Joe, is old enough to be hurt and furious, while their mother is lost, unable to react at all. Two older sisters make up the family, Caroline who is gentle and sensitive, while eldest sister Renee at eleven takes on the responsibility for them all. She’s the one who makes sure that homework is done, clothes are washed and there’s food on the table, while their mother shuts herself away in her room for the best part of three years, a time that becomes known as The Pause.

We follow this family over the decades but mostly it’s about the relationship between Fiona and Joe who was her childhood hero. You can see the effect The Pause has had on all of them on the kinds of people they become, but always it is Joe who is the most fragile, swinging from being the man with it all to being on the brink of disaster. Fiona is one of those characters who is a watcher and observer, cataloguing her sex life with different men in a hugely popular blog. She’s the perfect narrator as she analyses her family interactions and looking back sees where she went wrong.

In a way this is a story of regrets, but families can be tough and eventually forgive and rebuild. The book has that gentle humour that you see with siblings – the elbow digs and eye-rolling. And the early pages capture the family through Fiona’s young eyes, the meaningful moments and human frailty caught in the gaze of an innocent. It is a novel that ebbs and flows as the years progress, a little flagging at times and full of events at others – which makes it more like real life in some ways. There’s sadness in the book but you can see how this inspires the poet that Fiona becomes.

I really enjoyed the book over all. It’s real and yet has an ephemeral quality as Fiona, an at times unreliable narrator, misreads the people who love her. Love is a key theme, in all its forms but family love mostly, and what happens when you put it to the test. If you want a different kind of love story, The Last Romantics is well worth picking up. It’s a four out of five read from me.