Book Review: The Homes by J B Mylet – a gripping Scottish orphanage mystery

At the back of the book, J B Mylet explains how he was inspired to write this novel by his mother’s own experiences as a child in an institution very like the one in The Homes. As a young girl she thought all children were brought up in similar set-ups: a cluster of houses in a purpose-built of village with twenty or thirty children per cottage with ‘house parents’ and a cook to feed them all. She didn’t realise that most children grew up with their biological families.

And at first it’s the same for Lesley, sharing a room with five other girls, including her best friend, Jonesy, all about the same age. But now she’s twelve, she knows better. She at least gets regular visits from her grandmother, who though kindly, is unable to care for Lesley, and neither can her mother who visits a few times a year. Lesley is bitter about her mother and finds it difficult to believe her when her mother says she’s hoping to bring her home to live with her one day. Jonesy is there is because the state has considered her mother an unsuitable parent.

There are other rooms in Lesley’s house with more girls of different ages and in charge are the Patersons, a childless couple who do their best. But Mr Paterson is not above taking his belt to the girls, in fact it’s expected. Jonesy gets it more than most. She’s just so lively and unstoppable. And everyone is terrified of the Superintendent, Mr Gordon. Jonesy’s non-stop chatter is a foil to Lesley’s quieter intelligence. Meanwhile Lesley escapes into her studies, one of the few children who bus to a local school.

Fears of punishments and schoolyard bullies all fade into the background when an older girl, Jane Denton, goes missing, her murdered body found some days later. When another girl disappears, Jonesy determines to find out who the murderer is, while Lesley acts as a sounding board and is dragged into Jonesy’s sleuthing, throwing the girls into danger. What follows is a fairly classic mystery with plenty of secrets and hidden motives.

And while this is entertaining, it is the characters of the girls, especially Lesley’s narrative voice, sensitive and smart but also easily led down blind alleys, that make the story interesting. That and the strikingly original setting. It’s difficult to forget that these are vulnerable children who deserve so much better. Fortunately not all the adults are unsympathetic. Eadie is the kindly therapist who listens and offers advice; there’s a friendly detective and Lesley gets help just in the nick of time from an unexpected quarter.

The Homes makes for a compelling story, part mystery, part social commentary, that will have you riveted until the last page. But the story behind the story is just as interesting. I wonder what Mylet will come up with next. This book gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Meredith, Alone by Claire Alexander: a compelling story about a life spent indoors

It takes some skill to turn the life of an agoraphobic person into an interesting novel. But I was soon hooked by the story of Meredith who hasn’t left her house in 1214 days – that’s three years and three months. Something has happened to Meredith to leave her traumatised and solitary, something which has cut her off from her mother and sister Fiona, once her closest pal. The story weaves in the past with the present as we follow Meredith’s struggles to get out into the world again.

Meredith has made her home a haven with restful colours and orders everything she needs online. She works online as a freelance writer so she really has no need to go anywhere. It just shows you how easy it is to cut yourself off from the outside world if want to. She has her cat, Fred, and her best friend Sadie calls in regularly with her two young children so although the book is called Meredith, Alone, she still has people in her court.

Meredith has support from a group online, StrengthInNumbers, where she makes friends with Celeste and talks to a counsellor, Diane, who conducts regular online sessions. We catch up with Meredith when she has a new visitor – Paul, from Holding Hands. He drops in on Thursdays to make sure Meredith is OK. Paul has his own struggles, and is in between careers. The two become friends over jigsaw puzzles.

I have my fingers on the door handle. Diane and I decided that I would count backwards from twenty. When I reach five, I’ll open the door. By the count of one, I’ll have both feet on my front doorstep. I’ll take five steps down my path, then I’ll go back inside.
It feels good to have a plan.

The book charts Meredith’s attempts to leave her house, which spurs the book onwards, day by day. It also dives back into the past to reveal Meredith’s terrible childhood and the event that drove her indoors. It takes a while for the reader to get all the information you need for her situation to make sense. Without a varied setting, the plot relies on Meredith’s story to drive it along, the slow revelations and your eagerness for her recovery. And it works.

Meredith is good company – smart and for all that’s going on in her life, she keeps herself busy to avoid drowning in the miseries of her plight. The novel has a lot to say about all the pain people hide away from each other, the things that derail marriages and cut family ties. How you cover it up and carry on as best you can. Until you just can’t. But the book never feels weighed down by all this.

Reading Meredith, Alone so soon after Paper Cup, which I thought utterly brilliant, was probably not such a good idea. Both are connected by Glasgow and have main characters with mental health issues and who have broken off from their families. But these novels are very different in feel and Meredith, Alone has very little to suggest its wider setting, apart from the odd reference to Irn Bro. It’s no fault of this novel if it comes off as second best – it’s still a great read and Meredith a great character. It will make you think. So it’s a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: Paper Cup by Karen Campbell – walking in the shoes of a character at odds with the world

It can’t be easy to write from the point of view of a homeless person, particularly one like Kelly. She’s around fifty, an alcoholic whose thoughts never seem to stray far from where she’s going to get the next drink. You might think this makes Paper Cup uncomfortable reading too. And sometimes it is. But far outweighing all that is Kelly’s story and her telling of it. It helps that there’s a bunch of interesting and amusing characters around Kelly and the argo of Glasgow adds a touch of Billy Connelly. You might wonder if Glaswegians ever take themselves seriously.

Paper Cup is a kind of road novel, beginning during a Glasgow evening when a bride-to-be on her hen night makes a connection with the person dossing on a nearby bench. Fed up with the indignities of her evening, bride Susan flings down the bag of pound coins she’s earned for kisses from strangers but accidentally loses her engagement ring. Susan will be heading back to Galloway for her wedding a week away, and she’ll be aghast to discover her ring’s missing.

Kelly has been running from the past, a past that began in Galloway and has caused her to cut ties with her father and sister. What happened ruined Kelly’s life, setting her on a path of self-destruction and she’s been running from it all ever since, losing herself in alcohol. Suddenly, over twenty years later, there’s a reason to go back, and she has a week to get there. Along the way Kelly will meet people who help her, though many avoid her – she smells after all. And in her unlikely way, she’ll help others too, even saving a life and rescuing a dog. Kelly unwittingly becomes the unlikeliest of heroes and very readable.

She abhors it, this strange adolescent fury she feels. And this sharp recall of past events that keeps bowfing out on her – she doesny want that either. What is her mind playing at, opening doors and shaking out corners?
Just leave it well alone, Kelly.
Well, I’m trying, Kelly, I really am, but it seems we are running away with ourselves.

While it’s a kind of redemption story Paper Cup is also packed with humour. The way Kelly just brazen things out, getting away with all sorts, to feed and clothe herself – but then when you have nothing but what you carry with you, sometimes it’s the only way. She finds herself joining a kind of pilgrimage of sacred sites around the coast. She’ll learn about a leper colony and about two women condemned as witches for not adhering to the local faith. History repeats in its casting off of those who don’t fit in.

The novel is also reasonably pacy. With her deadline of one week to reach Susan before her wedding, there are moments when you feel Kelly hasn’t a hope of making it on time. And her wild disregard for rules throws her up against forces that want to stop her, including her own demons. Meanwhile she’s caught the attention of the news media who want to tell her story. You desperately want to give Kelly a hand and fortunately, eventually, someone does.

Paper Cup is a brilliant, heart-felt read, the writing is stunning and it will have you thinking. The next time you come across a homeless person, you might feel inclined to throw a coin into their paper cup. Or maybe you won’t. Either way, you might think about what has happened to them to bring them to the streets. This novel is one of my top reads for the year and gets a well-earned five out of five stars from me.

Book Review: The Driftwood Girls by Mark Douglas-Home – a twisty mystery involving fiction’s favourite oceanographer

I’d almost forgotten how much I’d enjoyed the previous ‘sea detective’ mysteries and so this book almost slipped under my radar. It’s been a while since The Malice of Waves, Douglas-Home’s previous novel about his beleaguered oceanographer sleuth. Cal McGill runs a small business out of his Edinburgh flat, mapping ocean currents for clients who are missing things – often loved ones – lost at sea. He has pictures of flotsam and jetsam on a pinboard that dominates his living/working space, some of them rather grisly. So yes, he’s an odd sort.

It’s not unusual for him to find himself in a tight spot and at the start of The Driftwood Girls everything seems to be going wrong. After talking to an elderly man who looked set to jump from a bridge, the news media have labelled him as the bad guy when the old fellow disappears. Clients have dropped him like a hot potato and he’s almost out of cash. Then he learns that his old uni friend Alex is dying and is called to make good a promise to bury him in the middle of Alex’s favourite lake, which being illegal, will have to be done post-burial and under cover of darkness.

Out of the blue, Cal is contacted by Kate Tolmie, desperate to find her sister Flora who left a mysterious note with Cal’s name on it. Twenty-years before Kate and Flora’s mother disappeared off the coast of France when she was due to return to her family via ferry. The disappearance was big news at the time but no clues have ever come to light. Kate also hopes Cal can find out what happened to her mother, and there’s a personal connection too. Flora was Alex’s fiancée.

The story switches to Texel, an island holiday spot in the Netherlands, where the body of a young English girl lost at sea washed up, also twenty-three years ago. Here her old school-mate Sarah has made her home, guilt-ridden for not being a better friend. Of course, only Cal can make the connection. And what’s the connection to the death of a beggar at an Edinburgh train station, stabbed in an adjacent alley. All clues point to Kate Tolmie being the killer but DS Helen Jamieson isn’t so sure.

Helen is the other great thing about these books. She, like Cal, is an awkward character, not getting on with her colleagues because of her need to examine all the facts to ensure the right person is put away. Imagine that! Her IQ is off the chart and she’s got a massive crush on Cal. The two have become friends over several cases, but Cal is a terrible person to be friends with as he disappears for months at a time and doesn’t keep in touch.

Friendship is a recurring theme throughout the book – the awkward friendship between Cal and Helen, Cal’s sporadic memories of time spent with Alex, and their friend Olaf. There’s Sarah and her elegant French neighbour, as well as her memories of lost friend Ruth. Friendship has its obligations which can cause strain as much as it enriches people and we can see that here. Then there are all those secrets. Cal is in for a few surprises about the old pals he lost touch with and it is fortunate that Helen is investigating as she helps connect the dots.

This is a lovely twisty read with some really evocative coastal settings that add a ton of atmosphere. You get enough of the science of oceanography for it to add interest without weighing the story down. Mark Douglas-Home deftly weaves together all the plot threads – and there are a few of them – in a way that keeps you up reading to see what happens. All in all it’s a very satisfying mystery, but I hope we won’t have to wait too long before Cal’s next investigation. A four out of five read 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: 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 Hunting Party by Lucy Foley – a tense mystery that keeps you guessing

This novel is very similar in structure to The Guest List, Foley’s later book (which I reviewed last year) so it’s hard not to make comparisons. Both use the same before and now time shifts and leave the reader guessing not only who the murderer is – there are multiple candidates – but also the identity of the victim. The cast of characters – victims, witnesses and suspects – is cut off from the world by a weather event in both books. So beginning the earlier book, I asked myself, should I feel a little short-changed?

But in no time The Hunting Party swept me off into the story, because Foley is superb at creating tension and drama. The scenario is a group of nine friends who take the train for a weekend away in Scotland to see in the New Year at a remote hunting lodge. Most of them have been friends since university, although it is Emma, a more recent addition to the group, who arranges everything. She’s here as she’s Mark’s girlfriend. Mark is Julian’s best mate and Julian is married to Miranda, and these two are the alpha couple of the group. Julian and Miranda are fabulously wealthy and incredibly good looking. They seem to have it all and as we know that means trouble, particularly with their continued disregard for other people’s feelings.

The lodge is run by two live-in staff. Heather, recovering from loss, prefers her own company and the quiet of the remote setting. Doug is also running away from something – a checkered past that includes PTSD from his stints as a soldier in Afghanistan. His past is littered with violence, and he’s in charge of the shooting. You can’t help wondering what it might take to set him off. The presumptuousness and bad behaviour of a group of drunk friends might just do the trick.

Not long into the story there is a snow storm which turns the hunting lodge and its grounds into an island. When a body is found, emergency services are unable to send help until the weather lets up, leaving Heather and Doug to manage the situation – two very fragile people.

As I said, Foley is a master at building tension, the before and now time-frame keeps you guessing, but slowly fills you in with what’s going on in the heads of several characters, as well as their interactions with others. The party of friends are mostly people you wouldn’t want to spends a lot time with. There are supreme displays of arrogance and one-up-manship, and multiple secrets. Games of Twister and Truth or Dare oiled with an abundance of alcohol as well as drugs don’t help. It’s easy to empathise with Heather and even Doug, who appear vulnerable. Can they trust each other enough to keep things from boiling over?

The story bounces along to a tense ending where more violence is set to happen and the method and motives keep you guessing till the end. Overall I had to feel happy with the story as I was well entertained. The audiobook version I listened to was well-done and brought the book to life superbly. But I wonder if Lucy Foley will break out with a new type of story for her next novel. A better class of beach read, I’m going to give The Hunting Party a three and a half out of five.

Book Review: The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing by Mary Paulson-Ellis

This is a very smart, quirky novel spanning two time periods, from the recent past and flipping back to tell a story from the final days of the First World War. Godfrey Farthing is a captain of a small group of men who stumble upon an abandoned farmhouse with cabbages stored in the larder, chickens in the yard. As November 1918 dawns, rumour has it that an armistice will soon be signed – all Godfrey has to do is keep his men safe until then. Godfrey grieves all the young boys who have died when he sent them over the top, especially young Beach – surely there can’t be any point in more fighting.

If only his raw, straight out of training second-in-command, Lieutenant Svenson, wasn’t so eager to get some action before it’s too late. He’s two things Godfrey wished he wasn’t: a keen gambler and a man who loves his Webley revolver. The men, sequestered in the barn, pass the time with trivial games of chance, betting with odd trifles: a spool of thread, a sixpence, a wishbone, a piece of ribbon. Against Godfrey’s orders, Svenson insists on joining the men, but his manner is teasing, creating edginess and discord. When a young soldier (they are mostly still in their teens) arrives with the orders Godfrey dreads, personality clashes and secrecy threaten to destabilise Godfrey’s plans with tragic results.

Woven in with this story is that of Godfrey’s grandson, Solomon Farthing, who, in Edinburgh decades later, is trying to work his way out of a run of bad luck. He owes a local criminal boss a load of money he doesn’t have, and to make matters worse he’s been caught breaking into a house for an oddly innocent reason. A police officer who owes Solomon a favour gets him off, but there’s a catch. He must track down the family of one recently departed elderly gent, Thomas Methven who has no obvious next of kin. Thomas had 50,000 pounds in used notes sewn into his burial suit, a tidy sum with the kind of commission that might see Solomon through his tight patch.

Solomon is an heir hunter, and with four days to come up with an answer, the story takes him on a roller-coaster through the past, connecting dots and in particular the odd objects left behind, some of which have their origins in his grandfather’s pawn shop – another trip down memory lane. It’s a problematic case in many ways, and Solomon will have to face down rival heir hunters and his own demons, charging about the country-side in his aunt’s borrowed mini, acquiring a dog and the help of a miscreant boy along the way.

Solomon’s character reminds me a bit of someone from a Restoration comedy – he is such an unlikely hero. But somehow he makes connections that others don’t and it all harks back to those days just before the Armistice, on an abandoned farm in France. The fragments come together that explain the fifty thousand pounds, but also the story of Solomon himself – his parentage, his life with his grandfather at the Edinburgh pawn shop, his love and loss. The war story that is the basis of all that follows is a tense counterpoint to the more madcap story of Solomon’s search, because we all know that many soldiers died in those final days of the war and there are sure to be losses. But who?

The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing takes some interesting turns and produces an unexpected ending and resolution. It is such an original story with a cast of memorable and odd-ball characters – that Restoration comedy thing again, maybe. The writing is crisp with a smartly sardonic undertone that makes it a pleasure to read. Overall it might read like two distinctly different stories woven into one and not everyone will agree that this works successfully. However, I found that the Solomon story made for pleasantly light relief from the war story, with its sense of impending tragedy. I enjoyed the book a lot and will definitely read more by Mary Paulson-Ellis. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford

The plot-line for The Lost Lights of St Kilda is fairly classic: boy meets girl; boy falls in love with girl and she with him; circumstances tear them apart and years later, boy tries to find girl again and wonders if it’s too late. Nothing very original here, but what makes this novel so very interesting are the settings.

The story opens with Fred, a prisoner of war courtesy of the Germans, following his capture at St Valery. It’s 1940, and while many British servicemen were evacuated at Dunkirk, he’s stuck in a dark, dank prison cell with others from the 51st Highland Division, dreaming of home. Fred’s in his thirties, has lived all around the world with his work as a geologist, but what he can’t stop thinking about is the girl he left behind a dozen years before when he was researching the rock strata on St Kilda.

St Kilda is a wild and rugged island group off the coast of Scotland. Quite a way off the coast of Scotland. Lewis and Harris are part of the Outer Hebrides, and are hardly within cooee. St Kilda’s home to thousands of seabirds, particularly gannets and fulmars which earn the islanders their livelihood. It’s pretty much subsistence living – it has to be as there’s no regular postal service, no radio communication, so the locals rely on visiting fishing boats and such for mail and supplies.

There’s also a bit of tourism in the summer – visitors make day trips to buy St Kilda handcrafts and to photograph ‘Britain’s last hunter-gatherers’. You can imagine what a smart St Kilda girl like Chrissie thinks of that. Chrissie’s story is woven in with Fred’s. She’s a plucky young girl when we meet her and her narrative describes among other things her fondness for the laird’s son. Archie Macleod is a charismatic but wayward young man who visits the island as a child and instantly causes trouble. Later during his final year at Cambridge, he turns up with Fred Lawson, the two of them settling in for a summer that will change their lives.

Through Fred’s eyes we see a dying way of life. The breathtakingly dangerous work the St Kilda men do each year to harvest fulmar chicks for their oil and meat, abseiling off the steep cliffs that border the main island of Hirta. Then there’s the evenings spent around the fire, the women weaving, the singing and storytelling. The intense devotion the families have for their children who are precious, because so many have died as infants.

Events conspire to have Fred making a new life for himself, though his story is mainly about his wartime bid for freedom, his survival through a terrible winter and his struggle to get back to his girl not knowing what he will find when he gets there. It’s a hymn to the sterling work of French Resistance and ordinary people, often at great cost, to get Allied escapees home.

I loved this book. There is plenty of dramatic tension among the characters, particularly Chrissie, Fred and Archie who are each sympathetic in their own way. Even Archie, who continues to cause trouble as an adult, is well fleshed out, battling his private demons. But mostly it’s the geography that steals the the show here, sending you to the Internet and the haunting images of a lost way of life. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

I may be wrong, but The Sixteen Trees of the Somme could be the first Scandinavian book I have read that wasn’t a crime novel. Not that there aren’t some terrible events here: war, genocide, theft, a disputed legacy, blotted reputations and simmering feuds. Why throw in the police as well? There’s also a fairly mind-boggling mystery at the heart of the story.

Edvard has grown up on a remote potato farm in Norway under the care of his grandfather, Sverre. His parents died with he was three in mysterious circumstances while on holiday. The family of three were on a road trip to visit the birthplace of Edvard’s French grandmother, a farm adjacent to the battlefield of the Somme. Young Edvard went missing for several days before being left at a doctor’s surgery. Nobody knows who cared for him before Sverre arrived to take him home.

When his grandfather dies, a beautifully crafted coffin has been kept for him at the undertakers, which can only have been built by Sverre’s brother, Einar, a master cabinet maker. Edvard may have left it at that, buried his grandfather, and carried on with the farm. There’s Hanne, a high-school sweetheart back home from veterinary college, to hang out with. But the past nags at him and before long, Edvard is following a trail of clues to a tiny island off the Shetland coast called Haaf Gruney, in search of the uncle he hardly knew.

The Shetland Islands have a long Norwegian history, before becoming part of Scotland, and it is curious just how many place names and turns of phrase have a Norwegian ring to them. Edvard arrives off the car ferry from one remote spot on the atlas to an even remoter one with very little life experience. Soon he meets the much more savvy Gwen, a young woman the same age as Edvard, with a strong connection to her late grandfather, a wealthy timber merchant who owned Haaf Gruney. The two have a connected history it seems.

The story takes you through a maze of twists and turns as Edvard pieces together his uncle’s life. There’s his war – we’re up to World War II now, where Einar was involved in the French Resistance, and the importance of some trees that once grew in the Somme, and its link with Gwen’s grandfather’s experiences in the previous war. Then there’s the question of Einar’s feud with Sverre, attributed to the fact that Sverre fought for the Germans – or was there more to it than that? And then there’s Einar’s reverence for wood – you learn a lot about the craft of making fine things, the timber that makes it special.

Mytting builds the story beautifully, pulling you in as Edvard and Gwen make the discoveries that lead back to the terrible day when Edvard’s parents died. But this is so much more than an extremely satisfying mystery. Edvard has a lot of growing up to to do and some big decisions to make. The legacies of both Einar and Sverre pull him in two directions, as does his attraction to two women. And this a young man who until leaving Norway had never eaten anything remotely as exotic as an Indian meal served in restaurant on a Shetland island.

The revelations of the story will really tug at your heart as well – the events of two world wars have hammered both Gwen’s and Edvard’s families. It’s no wonder they form an attachment. As the past drags them into some terrible discoveries, you wonder how they will recover. It makes you ponder the way that people’s heritage is linked to who they are and how they build a future from that. How much can be forgotten? It all adds up to a powerful story, one that will haunt you well after finishing the book.

I’m happy to see there’s a new Lars Mytting book just out – The Bell in the Lake – the first in a trilogy no less and which promises more of the themes Mytting is drawn to. One for my To Read list for sure. This one scores a four and a half out five from me.