Book Review: The Last Hours by Minette Walters

I probably wouldn’t have picked up a novel set around the Bubonic Plague of 1348 if I hadn’t embarked on a reading challenge. You had to read a book about a pandemic and dodging dystopian themes I plumped for this historical novel – its tagline: For most, the Black Death is the end. For a brave few, it heralds a new beginning.

Venturing into The Last Hours, I found myself thoroughly swept away into Middle Ages Dorseteshire. Of course I remember all those creepy, atmospheric crime novels of Walters I’d enjoyed years ago so knew she could spin a yarn.

Here we’ve got a dysfunctional family – at its head, lord of the manor, Sir Richard Develish. Bawdy, cruel and lacking any subtlety of thought, he believes he keeps his serfs productive by the threat of violence. But it’s his clever wife, Lady Anne, who works with the serfs to ensure productivity is high for the area, all the while keeping her husband’s potential to harm in check. It helps that she can read and he can’t.

Unfortunately, their daughter, Lady Eleanor, takes after her father in stupidity and general nastiness. At fourteen she has beauty and a small dowry. The plan is to marry her off to a local lord’s son in the hope that the union will win Sir Richard preferment, but the lad is said to be sickly. The story begins with Sir Richard setting out to visit his future son-in-law to see for himself. He is accompanied by his steward Gyles Startout and a small team of armed men to guard the dowry but when they arrive, it is soon obvious that people are falling sick.

Gyles, who acts as eyes and ears for his master and mistress, quickly spots there are good reasons to leave hastily, and the party take flight. But by the time they reach home, everyone is ill or left to die, except Gyles. Bringing news of her husband’s death, Gyles nurses the remaining soldiers and stays on the far side of the Develish moat, quarantining himself. Meanwhile Lady Anne decides to bring in all the serfs from their village to keep them safe. It’s effectively a lock-down.

Lady Anne is pretty smart, and maybe just a little before her time. She learnt to keep the sick separate from the healthy when she was growing up at a convent so keeping the world at bay and shoring up the moat are sensible moves. As well as good practices in hygiene, Lady Anne has taught many of the serfs to read, including tall, dark and handsome Thaddeus Thurkell. Growing up a serf and a bastard, young Thaddeus was maltreated by his adopted father, but fortunately rescued by Lady Anne. Now he’s her right-hand-man. As well as Gyles, it’s Thaddeus Lady Anne turns to for advice about protecting her people, and what to do when supplies run low.

The Last Hours is a rip-roaring read, full of danger and acts of valour, intrigue and secrets. You also get a good picture of social conditions of the time. The role of women as chattels of their landowning husbands. The place of serfs, often at the mercy of harsh laws and crueller masters and their priests who reinforce the status quo. Memories of the Norman conquest of barely three hundred years before still fester with those of French descent having the upper hand and often reviled for it. But times are a-changing and maybe all that is needed is a plague to sort out the sheep from the goats, the survivors from the doomed and to auger a new way of doing things.

I suppose I’ll find out in the sequel, The Turn of Midnight, now on my to-read list. The Last Hours is a tale of endurance and human ingenuity with characters you want to cheer for and all the suspense you need to keep you whipping through its 550-odd pages. A surprisingly quick read and an easy four out of five from me.

Lockdown Listening 2: The Go-Between by L P Hartley

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

So begins the The Go-Between, L P Hartley’s 1953 coming-of-age novel, where a man in his sixties looks back on his childhood and the summer of 1900 which changed the shape of his life to come.

When a measles epidemic strikes their school, twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited by his friend Marcus to stay for a few weeks with his family in Norfolk. The Maudsleys have adult guests visiting and things will be dull for Marcus without company his own age. Whisked away to Brandham Hall, Leo is suddenly aware he is socially out of his depth, lacking the right clothes and knowledge of how things are done. Leo is soon charmed by Marcus’s sister, Marion, and over the summer makes something of a hit with the family, as well as (Lord) Trimingham, the scarred war veteran Marion is expected to marry.

Often left to his own devices, Leo wanders about, venturing onto the farm of Ted Burgess, a fit young man with a rough way of speaking who is known the the Maudsleys. Leo finds himself taking a message to Marion from Ted, little knowing the he is aiding their secret affair. Over the following weeks, Leo – so eager to please – becomes the lovers’ postman.

The narrative has a vein of humour running through it, highlighting the naiveté of Leo, and capturing the way boys think and bounce off each other. But underneath is a sense of unease as the summer heat takes hold – Leo has been warned of the heat from his over-protective mother – and events build up to a boiling-over kind of climax, as storm clouds loom overhead. The iniquities and restrictions of class are a key part of the story, but there is promise too with the new century, or is Leo a symbol of dashed hope here as well?

If my twelve-year-old self, of whom I had grown rather fond, thinking about him, were to reproach me: ‘Why have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start? Why have you spent your time in dusty libraries, catologuing other people’s books instead of writing your own?’ … I should have an answer ready. ‘Well, it was you who let me down, and I will tell you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me.’

This audiobook was read by Sean Barrett and I was soon pulled into the story of Leo, a pawn in affairs that are beyond his comprehension. It’s a brilliant performance, but I just had to dig out my old paperback copy of the book, published as tie-in for the movie starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, to reread passages or rush through others. The novel also had a further screen adaptation and with its bucolic setting, dramatic tension and sense of nostalgia, you see why it works so well on film. A five out of five read from me.

Lockdown Reading 2: Dead in Devon by Stephanie Austin

I was inspired to grab a handful of murder mysteries to get me through lockdown, a time when you mightn’t feel like reading anything too demanding. Dead in Devon is the first in Austin’s series featuring Juno Browne, Domestic Goddess for hire (housework, dog-walking, and random odd jobs). We’re in cosy mystery territory here, so the heroine is a natural busy-body, primed to solve the murder.

The setting is the pretty Devon town of Ashburton, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Titian-haired, twenty-something Juno has no family and makes a basic living with her bright yellow van. Old Nick has a dodgy reputation in the antique trade and wants Juno to work for him. When he’s murdered, Juno believes that those two Russian thugs she discovered putting the frighteners on Nick are the culprits.

The police, good cop Inspector Ford and bad cop DC (Cruella) DeVille, don’t have a lot to go on – Nick had obviously ripped off someone, and with his previous custodial history, had friends in low places. But Juno has become fond of the old fellow and can’t help investigating.

The traders Nick did deals with may offer clues and include Paul, a handsome furniture restorer, Albert (Piano-teeth) Evans and one of Juno’s cleaning clients, snooty Verbena Clarke. Then there are Nick’s estranged children, Helena and Richard, who accuse Juno of being a gold-digger. The cast of characters also includes Morris and Ricky, a gay couple who hire out costumes to drama companies around the country. They are the perfect confidantes for Juno and encourage her romantic efforts by helping her with outfits picked from famous plays and musicals. Even the dogs Juno walks have interesting personalities.

Austin adds plenty of pace balancing sequences of lively dialogue with action scenes so there’s plenty here to keep you amused. She has made much of her background in amateur theatre and knowledge of antiques to add colour to the story. My only quibble was that I more or less guessed the perpetrator, but it was all so entertaining I didn’t mind too much. Three and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

This novel was the first to win the Orange Prize in 1996, a prize that has had a few reincarnations, including the Baileys Prize and now simply The Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s nice to think that Dunmore got the prize off to a flying start (just check out the people who have received the award since), especially as the author died a couple of years ago. Fortunately she left a fine backlist to dip into.

A Spell of Winter is a historical novel about two siblings, Cathy and Rob, whose parents have left them in the care of their grandfather and the servants that run his crumbling country house. No one talks about their mother, who has abandoned them to live in the south of France – she was a bit wild, with crazy Irish hair that poor young Cathy seems to have inherited. Their dad is in a home for the insane. They visit him one day as small children under the care of Miss Gallagher, the meddling governess who adores young Cathy but loathes Rob. The visit does not go well.

Mostly the children run wild in the woods and there is a sense of nature, both bounteous and grisly in Dunmore’s atmospheric setting where images of violence against small animals recur. Miss Gallagher fears for Cathy, as does her grandfather, and at seventeen, Cathy is introduced to Mr Bullivant, the wealthy new owner of the neighbouring estate who is fresh from Italy. He collects art, is pleasant company and knows Cathy’s mother. He also worries about Cathy and encourages her to leave and see the world, but she would rather stay at home with her grandfather.

‘You live in the past,’ Kate said. ‘You live in your grandfather’s time.’ But she was wrong. The past was not something we could live in, because it had nothing to do with life. It was something we lugged about, as heavy as a sack of rotting apples.

Everyone is right to fear for Cathy, as it turn out, and events reach a shocking climax, but with the First World War not far away, it seems everything’s is in a state of flux. Soon a new order will sweep through and you can’t help feeling that perhaps it needs to. The crumbling house with its wintry Gothic mood is perhaps symptomatic of the era and contrasts interestingly with Mr Bullivant’s stories of his Mediterranean home and his plans to replicate it in England.

A Spell of Winter is one of those novels that pulls you in with its secrets and sense of impending doom. Cathy’s intensity, her determination and her desire for things to stay the same add tension. But then all the characters are strongly drawn often with contradictory aspects to their character – the maid, Kate, is impulsive but wise; Miss Gallagaher can be rigid about rules but is also sentimental.

What particularly lifts the novel above being just another well-told story is the magic of Dunmore’s writing which is finely crafted in a way that is poetic, creative and vivid. And this is what keeps you reading, even when things get a little icky (don’t let the prologue put you off). This is a small work of brilliance and a four out of five read from me.

Review: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

summerMany readers will remember Helen Simonson’s popular debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. It’s a contemporary story about a man recently widowed who rescues a golf-course from developers and has a second chance at love. The Summer Before the War is similarly set in rural England, but the war of the title is World War 1. Protagonist Beatrice Nash has recently lost her father but through a well-connected but disapproving aunt secures a position to teach Latin at a grammar school in Rye.

Beatrice aims to be self-supporting, to earn a living through teaching and writing, and to never marry. She’s a striking and interesting character, in a book full of interesting characters, including Agatha Kent, who takes Beatrice under her wing and helps her settle in. She sends her nephew, Hugh Grange, to collect Beatrice from the station and the two strike a slightly awkward friendship.

Hugh is in his last year of training as surgeon under the brilliant Sir Alex Ramsey, who has a lovely young daughter, Lucy. She has many admirers among Ramsey’s students, but Hugh rather hopes he could be the frontrunner in the race for her affections. He has a dream of taking over Ramsey’s busy London practice and Lucy would be the perfect wife. Continue reading “Review: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson”