Book Review: Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks – a stunning historical read with a strong emotional pull

Sebastian Faulks regularly delivers an engrossing read, beautifully written and meticulously researched, often about some interesting aspect of history. The history never takes over the story – it’s always about the characters – but it gives you a very well imagined stage upon which the characters reveal themselves.

Snow Country is the second book in a trilogy, the first of which, Human Traces, completely passed me by. Published in 2005, Human Traces is about two friends, one English, one French, both fascinated by the workings of the mind. They go into psychiatry together, develop an asylum in Austria. Of course, Austria is where Freud worked, Vienna the birthplace of psychoanalysis. But Europe is about to be torn apart by the First World War.

Picking up Snow Country, it doesn’t matter at all if you haven’t read the first book – Faulks fills you in with everything you need to know, through the eyes of its two main characters. Anton escapes his bourgeois upbringing and his parents’ plan for him to take over his father’s sausage empire to study philosophy in Vienna. He starts submitting articles to newspapers, with an eye to becoming a journalist. Here he meets Delphine, a piano teacher, older and more sophisticated than Anton, but perhaps her charm lies in the secrets she hides. World War One intervenes and the two are separated, leaving Anton at sea emotionally as well as traumatised by his experiences at the front.

Lena couldn’t be more different from Delphine. Barely literate, she’s the child of an alcoholic mother who scrapes a living doing menial work and occasional prostitution. But Lena has the determination to make something of herself and sets her sights on Rudolph a law student who finds her a job for a respectable clothing merchandiser. Through Lena and Rudolph we get a snapshot of the political situation in Vienna post-war as the Nazi regime comes to power in Germany. While Rudolph is a politically active idealist, Lena lives for the moment, is open-hearted and spontaneous.

The stories of Lena and Anton eventually converge at an asylum by a lake, the Schloss Seeblick where Lena, escaping Vienna, takes a job, and where Anton is to research an article. The setting is oddly calming for both of them and drives each of them to dare to plan a different future. Anton has thoughtful conversations with Martha, the daughter of one of the asylum’s founders, now a trained psychotherapist.

…I have come to have a low view of the human creature, the male in particular. He seems to be a deformed animal.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We are obsessive,’ Anton said. ‘We appear to have bigger brains than other creatures, but we behave in a way that’s contrary to our own interests. These harmful passions that drive us mad with love or with the need to slaughter one another. We don’t seem very well … evolved.’

As you might expect, Faulks takes the reader to some interesting places, such as the building of the Panama Canal, a huge undertaking that risks the lives of its labour force daily. Anton covers the story for a newspaper, as well as a murder trial in Paris. There’s a strong emotional pull too – both Lena and Anton are in their own ways broken hearted, suffering tragedy or loss. It’s a very moving book, as well as historically interesting, and gives you a lot to think about.

Snow Country isn’t the kind of book you race through to see what happens. The writing is such a joy it is worth taking your time over it. But you can’t help wondering how much of what is going on here is a set-up for the third book. I envisage World War II will have a part to play. In the meantime I am curious to check out Human Traces, and hope we don’t have to wait another decade or two before Book Three. This one gets a four and a. half out of five from me.

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce – a hymn to friendship and to the resourcefulness of women in a man’s world

I’m often drawn to the scenarios described on the backs of Rachel Joyce’s books. But not really enjoying The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry half as much as everybody else seemed to, I haven’t read any further. But looking for an audiobook, I came across Miss Benson’s Beetle and seeing it was read by the truly splendid Juliet Stephenson, I couldn’t resist. Soon I was immersed in the story, set in the early 1950s London, where dowdy, middle-aged schoolteacher Margery Benson has an epiphany.

It doesn’t take much to tip a schoolteacher over the edge, and imagine being a home science teacher in the rationing years, poorly paid and a hopeless cook. She struggles to maintain engagement in a class of sniggering girls. When one student draws a cruel caricature of her, Margery can bear it no longer. She steals a pair of brand new lacrosse boots belonging to the deputy head and decides to embark on a long dreamt-of adventure: to travel to New Caledonia in search of a gold beetle. She had seen it mentioned in her late father’s beetle book, but it has yet to be collected, named and sent to the Natural History Museum.

Margery needs an assistant and advertises. Of the three who reply, the only possible contender does a reference check on Margery and changes her mind. Mrs Pretty can’t write a letter that makes sense; the disagreeable Mr Mundic wants to take over as expedition leader, ready with a gun to fight off savages – clearly he has a screw loose. At the last minute, desperate for anybody really, Marjory writes offering the position to Enid Pretty.

At the train station, the two take a while to recognise each other as Enid is dressed in a tight pink suit, a ridiculous hat and dainty sandals decorated with pompoms. And why does she clasp her red valise as if her life depends on it? Margery is dressed in an ancient shabby suit, the lacrosse boots and a pith helmet. Somehow they make their connection to the ship that will take them to Australia, in spite of Enid not having a passport.

The two make an odd couple, Edith, a former cocktail waitress seems to be running away from something, constantly looking over her shoulder as if she’s being followed. But she has the streetwise knack of acquiring by fair means or foul anything they might need. If only she would stop talking. An array of difficulties – sea sickness, lost luggage, a tropical cyclone and so much more – forges an unexpected friendship. Yet things aren’t quite so simple as finding a beetle and setting off for home again.

The story is full of madcap scenes, some poignant revelations and life-or-death challenges as both women slowly open up about their past lives and the things they are afraid of. There’s also quite a lot about beetles – Margery has become quite the expert. I also enjoyed some of the minor characters, particularly the British wives who are stuck in New Caledonia because their husbands are there on business or as diplomats.

Bubbling through it all is a wry humour. I came away feeling the book was a wonderful hymn to friendship, and to women surviving in a man’s world, a world that in the shadows of World War II is shown to capable of horrific cruelty. And I was quite right about Juliet Stephenson – her reading is superb, bringing to life the two main characters hilariously. I am sure the novel is a brilliant read in print, but I do recommend the audiobook too. Miss Benson’s Beetle earns 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: The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting – an engrossing start to a promising historical trilogy

This is another spell-binding read by the author of The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, a terrific book which I reviewed last year. I felt the urge to pick up The Bell in the Lake when I saw that the sequel has just been released. I often seem to be one book behind. Anyway, I expected great things here and for the most part I was’t disappointed.

The Bell in the Lake follows three main characters and takes place largely in the remote Norwegian village of Butangen. It’s 1880 and the new pastor, Kai Schweigaard, is struggling to come to terms with the desperate poverty of his flock, the traditions and superstitions that hold them back and a church that is no-longer fit for purpose. In winter it is so cold inside that one Sunday an elderly woman dies, her cheek frozen to the wall next to her pew. The opportunity to sell the old stave church to be rebuilt as a historical curiosity in Dresden, and build a new church in Butangen seems a godsend.

Enter German artist and gifted architecture student, Gerhard Schönauer, who is tasked with making detailed drawings of the stave church and overseeing its demolition and transportation across the ice by sleigh. He’s a little out of his depth and the beguiling nature of the church, 700 years old and built in a higgledy-piggledy manner, makes its construction difficult to grasp. At least his host, the pastor, speaks German.

But then there’s the problem of the church bells. Twenty-year-old Astrid Hekne comes from an old farming family fallen on hard times. But centuries ago, her ancestors included two sisters, conjoined twins, who were noted for their beautiful weaving. When they died, their father gave up all the family silver to be poured into the making of two church bells in their honour. The bells have been known to toll warnings of their own accord. Kai has the problem of being secretly in love with Astrid and aware that the sale of the church includes the bells as part of the deal.

Mytting has crafted another well-researched and beautiful novel which captures a time and place that is instantly enthralling. I had never heard of Norwegian stave churches before and the descriptions here, as well as a lost way of life, create a fascinating background. But it’s the characters that really pull you in, and the drama from the dilemmas each faces, their decisions and their consequences. Though certainly the story isn’t the twisty jigsaw puzzle that made Sixteen Trees such a hypnotic read.

In spite of this being the first in a trilogy, which often means there’s some unfinished business to be developed in the next book, The Bell in the Lake has enough emotional power to make it a very satisfying read and leaves you wanting to know what happens next. I’m giving it a four out of five and very much looking forward to the next book, The Reindeer Hunters.

NB: If you have yet to read The Bell in the Lake, please avoid if you can reading the blurb for the sequel – it contains a fairly jaw-dropping spoiler.

Book Review: V for Victory by Lissa Evans – a witty, heartwarming read about the war at home

I seem to have a thing for historical novels at the moment and I’m lucky to be spoilt for choice. This novel loosely follows on from two other books by Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart and Old Baggage, both of which are terrific reads. The main character who features in all three is a boy called Noel who only appears briefly in Old Baggage, but is a young evacuee in Crooked Heart when Vee takes him in.

Vee has had a hard upbringing and knows the value of looking after yourself, with an eye over your shoulder in case someone catches you out. She’s a grifter in the earlier book, and now she has as secret as well as a new name, masquerading as Noel’s aunt, a Margery Overs. It’s the only way she can still be Noel’s guardian, and the two are inseparable.

In V for Victory, Noel and Vee are living in Hampstead, in the house where Noel lived with Mattie, an elderly former suffragette and Noel’s godmother (and also the main character in Old Baggage). Mattie has left a lasting impression on Noel, making him an eager student and likely to quote chunks of literature and even Greek at any moment. It might make him sound a trifle old for his fifteen years but his bright, cheery curiosity soon wins people over.

Such as Winnie, the chief fire warden he meets when out trying to buy a textbook from a recently bombed stationery shop. Winnie’s story is a subplot loosely threaded with the main story and gives a glimpse of the experiences of women left behind by husbands in the forces that they hardly remember.

Winnie’s Emlyn has been in a POW camp since Dunkirk. Now we’re approaching the end of the war, she’s wondering what it will be like to see him again, dreading the mail in case there’s another boring letter outlining imaginary colour schemes for an imaginary house, or garden plans. In the meantime she’s become a confident and able young woman who’s found her feet with her war work, emerging from the shadow cast by her glamorous twin sister.

But the main story focuses on what happens when Vee witnesses an accident involving a US Army truck driver and has to report to the coroner’s court. Vee is terrified of having to lie under oath that she’s Margery Overs. But there’s a happy outcome when she becomes the recipient of treats from the US Army stores and invitations to go out with defendant, Corporal O’Mahoney. You can’t help feeling Vee’s secret will be discovered sooner or later, though.

But most of the fun in this book centres around the odd-bod bunch of boarders Vee has taken in to make ends meet. She selects them carefully so that they can double as tutors for Noel, in place of school. Dr Parry-Jones teaches Noel chemistry, biology and ‘accuracy’ (her steady gaze seemed to see and expect only the truth); Mr Reddish, who once dreamt of a stage career teaches literature and is always on the brink of a recitation; Mr Jepson, a journalist who lost an ear in the previous war, takes care of history and mathematics. Dinner time conversations are always a hoot.

Similarly, there’s plenty of lively banter between Winnie and her fellow wardens in their Post 9 Nissan hut. Evans has such a knack with dialogue, it is easy to imagine these characters and what they sound like. And the wartime drudgery: making meals go further out of rations (fortunately Noel is an inventive cook and they have chickens); the lack of heating; the queuing; the interrupted train services; the end of war fatigue. Not to mention the constant listening for V-2 rockets which fall from the sky with little warning.

It all comes together in a book that captures the time with humour and empathy – a delicate balance to get right – and adds up to a perfect wartime novel. There’s plenty of competition in this genre, but V for Victory stands out for its quirky scenarios and unlikely heroes. I hope Evans has a few more up her sleeve. This one gets a four and a half out of five 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 Visitors by Caroline Scott – The Enchanted April meets Birdsong with a smidgeon of du Maurier

Sometimes you just pick up a book for no particular reason and it’s a very pleasant surprise. The Visitors has a gorgeous cover, so that was probably what attracted me, and luckily it turned out to be quite a find. Don’t judge a book by the cover – how often have we heard that maxim, but the truth is that we often do.

This book is Esme’s story. It’s the early 1920s and Esme’s a war widow and housekeeper to fussy, but kindly, Mrs Pickering in Yorkshire. Mrs P sends Esme off to Cornwall – her doctor’s recommended rest and recovery after Mrs P had a bout of flu. Esme is to make sure the house belonging to her brother is suitable for an extended stay over summer. Gilbert, himself a war veteran, has set up a kind of seaside retreat for himself and several other men from his unit, all in need of healing. They throw themselves into art and gardening and it’s all a bit too Bohemian for Mrs P’s tastes.

Esme doesn’t hit it off with Sebastian, sent to the station to fetch her – he thinks she’s been sent to snoop – but the others soon charm her. There’s Clarrie who makes delicious meals from the garden’s bounty; Hal who doesn’t speak but who puts together miniature ships in bottles; and then there’s Rory, somewhat wild and unkempt looking, in whom Esme discovers a fellow nature lover. Esme herself writes a weekly nature diary for the Huddersfield Courier, so there are plenty of descriptions of birdlife, flowers and the variations of the weather.

Soon we’re swept into a gorgeous setting, and this in itself would be a pleasant place to be as a reader, but there’s the war and its legacy to be dealt with. Esme is still grieving for her husband Alec, killed in 1916, and as he was from Penzance is hoping a visit to his childhood home will fill in a few gaps. She’d hardly got a chance to get to know him before the war began and off he went.

But the war has its secrets and there are a few big surprises that make the story much more than a charming summery read. I found myself tugged emotionally here and there as scenes from the war – Rory also puts pen to paper – are woven through the plot. Meanwhile Esme’s own personal discoveries create a shift in her feelings and open her up to new possibilities. The plight of the women left behind with the loss of so many young men, hovers in the background. It all comes together beautifully, with some great characters in Esme and Rory, but also Mrs P and Gilbert and even Sebastian, all of whom are interesting company.

And yet it’s probably the setting of Cornwall that was most memorable for me, not just the pretty scenery, the weather, the flowers and the sea. There’s the history and folklore as well. Reading The Visitors, it’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t want to up-stakes and move there. It reminded me a little of The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim with its characters similarly finding an idyllic place to heal. All in all the book was a pleasant surprise and I shall be hunting out more from Caroline Scott. This one’s a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: On Hampstead Heath by Marika Cobbold

Marika Cobbald’s new book On Hampstead Heath is a witty comment on our times, a kind of comedy of errors, with an unlikely heroine at its heart. Thorn Marsh is a news editor, a passionate believer in the role of the news media to uncover the truth and to keep the public well-informed. At forty-four, her career is everything, but when her paper is taken over by a media conglomerate she is shifted from the news desk to the midweek supplement to write The Bright Side. A prickly, curmudgeonly individual, she is the last person to write happy, inspiring stories.

Along with Thorn, there’s a bunch of quirky characters to enjoy. Nancy, Thorn’s mother who never loved but she has her reasons; Mira, Thorn’s new editor, who gives Thorn a good run for her money when it comes to dry one-liners; Lottie, Thorn’s neighbour, a Holocaust survivor and secret dope smoker and who is more like a mother figure than Nancy; Lottie’s niece, Jemima, disapproving and disappointed.

She turned an accusing eye on me. ‘The media have a great deal to answer for in all of this, affording celebrity status to people whose main contribution to society is putting their heads in a tank of maggots. My Year Fives thought Florence Nightingale was a contestant on Love Island.’

‘I only recently found out that a Kardashian isn’t a rifle,’ Lottie said, and finished her gin.

Desperation and alcohol lead Thorn to make up a story using a photo snapped on Hampstead Heath curtesy of her still friendly ex-husband, Nick.  Suddenly the world is sharing and retweeting her story about The Angel of the Heath, a flame haired apparition on the Viaduct Bridge, who had recently turned Thorn’s head rescuing her neighbour’s dog.

Lies pile up on top of lies as Thorn digs a hole from which it seems impossible to extricate herself. She has only herself to blame, and pours out her story to Nick and Lottie. She learns the hard way that getting the best story isn’t the only thing in life.

While there’s a good deal of desperation, Thorn is such a likeably difficult character and a dry, dark humour bubbles through every sentence. Thorn grows from someone who only lived for her job to someone who learns to love not only others but herself. But it’s never treacly or too serious and the ending is superb.

I loved On Hampstead Heath, but then I’ve always really enjoyed Cobbold’s books. But it has been a long stretch between the new book and her last one – ten years in fact. Hopefully we won’t have to wait as long for her next novel. On Hampstead Heath gets a four 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.