“The Widow’s Confession” by Sophia Tobin – review

It feels like ages since I posted a book review so I’m really pleased to be back with the second novel from Sophia Tobin whose debut, “The Silversmith’s Wife”, I very much enjoyed.  I’ve been particularly keen to read this one since it’s set in a part of Kent not far from where I live and with which I’m familiar having visited many times over the years; it’s not often you get to read a novel set in a place you know well and in which you can picture the buildings, streets, landmarks and landscapes exactly as they are in reality, and it gives the story a unique and personal flavour.  More than ever, I could imagine that the characters were truly there, walking in the places I’ve walked and seeing the things I’ve seen.  But of course, this is ultimately a gripping and deeply atmospheric tale whether you know the backdrop or not.

The quote on the front cover describes the novel as having “a dash of Wilkie Collins” and I’d definitely concur.  If you’re enticed by a nineteenth century setting, an enigmatic widow, priests with dark secrets and of course the appearance of a few dead bodies then you won’t be disappointed.  The titular widow is Delphine, who turns up in the seaside town of Broadstairs with her cousin Julia after ten years of travelling around Europe.  This lengthy trip is no indulgence, but rather one the pair was forced to make, fleeing their native USA after Delphine – we know not quite how – brought shame to her family through certain choices she made.  After being caught up in the bustle of a London overcrowded with people following the installation of the Great Exhibition, the women are hoping to find a quiet location in which to fade into obscurity, but it is not to be.  They soon become sucked into an unlikely social group, almost all of whom have come to the furthest reaches of Kent in an attempt to escape from their sorrows, hide from their past or to battle their emotional and spiritual demons.  Edmund Steele is escaping an aborted love affair and has come to stay with Theo Hallam, the local clergyman whose unexplained lapses into melancholy hint at some unexpressed inner torment.  Mr Benedict is an artist dragged down, it seems, by the mundanity of everyday life and whose desire for stimulation leads him to conduct himself in a questionable – potentially dangerous – way.  Miss Waring is a somewhat formidable middle-aged woman who’s come to Broadstairs to benefit from the sea air, but her niece Alba who has accompanied her is a strange, disquieting girl who veers between coquettish, manipulative and disarmingly childlike and divides the opinion of the party.  When the first body is found on the beach, the assumption is that a murderer is hiding somewhere within the coastal community.  When the second appears, suspicions begin to turn inwards and what trust there was within this group of outsiders starts to crumble.

There are so many things this novel does well.  I’ve already talked about the sense of place, which is so sharp it’d be almost as vivid to readers who haven’t been there as it is to me.  Then there’s the mystery of the murdered girls, which kept me guessing (and I guessed wrongly a few times) until the finale’s big reveal; I hadn’t worked out who the killer or killers were and I certainly wouldn’t have figured out the motive in a month of Sundays.  For me though, the triumph was the nuanced portrayal of a group of characters whose unlikely companionship, which has essentially been forced upon them by circumstance, is gradually pulled apart.  Under the stress of their proximity to the murders and their individual secrets and past tragedies, the party begins to splinter into factions united in mistrust of others.  Focussing on a tight group of people really allows the author to get under the skin of each and every one, and also creates a claustrophobic feel that’s shared by a growing number of the group as they long to be able to escape yet cannot quite extricate themselves.  She also takes great delight in playing with our perceptions of her creations, teasing us with clues as to their true character, which may or may not be red herrings.  Our opinion of almost everyone shifts back and forth as their stories are unwrapped layer by layer; beneath the gothic intrigue there’s a pertinent truth here, namely that all of us are guilty of making assumptions about others before we’re in full possession of the facts.  The question of who killed the girls found on the shore drives the story forward, but the mystery of who all these characters really are behind their various masks is almost more intriguing, and in many ways of more lasting significance once the tale comes to an end.

Sophia Tobin has cemented herself as one of those authors whose novels I’m pretty sure I’ll keep buying as long as she keeps writing them.  Easy to read yet with a satisfying amount of depth to them, for me they’re the epitome of reading entertainment.   I very much hope there won’t be as long a gap between this review and the next as there has been between many of my scribblings of late; there’s at least one more in the pipeline, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or indeed anything book-related!  Thank you for reading as ever.

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“Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg – review

I can’t quite call this a novel.  I can’t describe it merely as a story.  It’s a beautiful oddity, an experience, a sensation.  Reading it was a bit like being in a dream where the mundane is periodically punctuated by the surreal and you find yourself shadowed by a vague feeling of menace despite the familiarity of the everyday surroundings.  I bought it a few days ago knowing nothing at all about either book or author, but it’s a title I’m going to be championing for some time to come.

Poland: the early 1980s.  The country is a one-party state known officially as the Polish People’s Republic, with a communist government under the influence of the Soviet Union.  Following a succession of challenges to the state’s authority, the Military Council of National Salvation seized power and imposed martial law.  Everyday life for millions of Polish citizens is now fraught with difficulty: there are frequent power cuts and a shortage of many basic necessities, with shop shelves often bare.  This brief political context is provided by the translator in a short explanatory section at the back of the book and if, like me, your knowledge of 1980s Polish history is non-existent, it’s a useful addendum to give a bit of background to some of the novel’s references.

Our tour guide through these challenging times is Wiola, who is a young child when the book begins.  Everything that happens we see through her eyes as she grows up on the family farm in the tight rural community of Hektary.  The real cornerstone of the book is the way in which wider events creep into Wiola’s life yet all the while it’s the smaller, more personal and immediate happenings that most colour her impression of the world.  A lost kitten, a llama on show at the church fair, the humiliation of her first crush seeing her at the local market as she helps her grandmother sell cherries; these are the things that stick in the little girl’s mind most clearly, as we move through her life in a succession of vignettes, fragments of memory that combine to form her sense of self.  The author nails precisely how we all see ourselves and make sense of our existence; when we look back at our past it’s never a simple linear progression but rather isolated memories, often with significant gaps in between – and why we remember certain events so vividly and forget others is a mystery.  What’s also incredibly clever is the way in which Wioletta Greg ensures her readers have a level of knowing way beyond that of her narrator.  If any of you have read “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep”, then this works in a similar way: the young protagonist mentions things in passing that we as adults realise have a far greater significance than she can yet comprehend.  On the very first page there’s a quick, matter-of-fact reference to the fact that Wiola’s father was imprisoned for deserting the army just before she was born and remained inside for almost two years, but the emotional impact this would have had on him is beyond the scope of a child’s understanding.  When it becomes clear a few years later that he has a problem with alcohol the connection is never made in writing, although it most certainly is in our heads.  Some episodes are terrifying to us while merely mystifying to Wiola, the most striking example being the school art competition that attracts the sinister attention of the government authorities.  Wiola paints a picture of Moscow but unfortunately the ink cartridges in her schoolbag burst and the painting in ruined.  Too late to be withdrawn, it gets sent off to the provincial authorities for judging and Wiola forgets all about it, until a month later when two officials turn up at the school wanting to speak to her.  She assumes they’ve come to award her a prize, and is completely nonplussed when they start quizzing her on who gave her the idea to depict Moscow in such a way, deface (deliberately they believe) with dark ink.  Of course Wiola has no conspiracy about which to tell them, but we turn cold as we read, horrified by the level of state scrutiny, the intimidation of a child and the very real threat of arrest for perceived treasonous acts that dog this surveillance society.

There are many more episodes like this throughout the novel, and Wiola suffers some truly horrendous treatment at times by a number of unpleasant characters.  It seems bizarre to say then, but I found the book absolutely beautiful.  To see the wonder a child finds even in a world we know to be brutal, cruel and dangerous is quite humbling and immensely moving.  It’s also about the places we call home and the love that ties us to them even when logic tells us that circumstances could be so much better elsewhere.  It’s a very short book but it has an intensity meaning it punches well above its weight in terms of lasting emotional impact.  It hasn’t had widespread reviews or lots of publicity as far as I know, but it’s become my personal mission to get as many people reading it as I can.  I do hope this review is a good start.

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“The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue – review

I had a job interview and assessment day last week, which meant a very long train journey to Birmingham during which I was somehow going to have to distract myself from the horrors to come.  The book I shoved into my handbag on a whim was “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue; by the time I’d reached my destination I was almost halfway through, and even the hideous claustrophobia of a Virgin train carriage and the prospect of the next day’s Powerpoint presentation couldn’t draw my mind away from this most mesmerising story.

Anna O’Donnell is an eleven year old girl living in nineteenth century rural Ireland who’s become something of a celebrity.  Her family claim she hasn’t eaten a single bite of food for months and yet is thriving, a fact attributed to a religious miracle.  Lib Wright, an English nurse who worked in military hospitals under Florence Nightingale, is sent on a mission along with a Catholic nun, Sister Michael, to watch the girl round the clock and find out whether she is indeed blessed by God or whether it is in fact a clever hoax.  Lib arrives in Ireland a confirmed sceptic and is convinced she’ll uncover foul play within days.  Things, however, prove to be much more mysterious than she’d anticipated.  She’s been given fourteen days to observe before reporting her findings to a local committee, and as the clock ticks down she finds herself much more emotionally involved with the case than she could have imagined.

The novel’s simplicity is striking.  There aren’t huge numbers of characters vying for your attention.  The setting is pretty much limited to Anna’s cottage, the inn in which Lib is staying and her walk in between the two.  Even the events are repetitive (although I must stress that, very cleverly, they never read as such) in the sense that Lib’s routine is to sit or stroll with Anna, watch her sleep, read or pray and then get some brief rest herself before doing it all again.  There’s a metronomic quality to the march of the days, yet they are always punctuated with just enough disquieting moments to give us an uneasy feeling about the way events may unfold.  Even the most mundane of incidents take on an air of foreboding inside this strange bubble: the accidental breaking of a Virgin Mary figurine or the incomprehensible prayer that Anna mumbles over and over again.  In fact, as the novel goes on, more and more references to superstition, if not quite the overtly supernatural, creep in, to the point where I started to wonder if what I had in front of me was developing into a horror story.  The touches are always subtle – the locals’ fear of the “little ones”, the mischievous sprites who would cause untold havoc if not placated; the mysterious tree outside the village hung with decomposing rags; the disturbing photograph in Anna’s room that isn’t quite what it seems – but the sense of fear, and of something otherworldly potentially being involved here, is palpable.  Even religion, which features very heavily in the story, is not the comforting presence you would hope, since Lib strongly suspects that the Church and some of its loyal, blinkered followers are actually conspiring to put little Anna at risk for the sake of publicising a supposed “miracle”.  Whether or not there is any supernatural activity at work or whether there is in fact a very human, worldly explanation for everything is not something I’m going to give away here.  What I will say is that by hinting at multiple possibilities, the author evokes in her readers the same sense of doubt and disorientation felt by Lib as she grapples with the confounding mystery laid before her.

The fact that I, with my notoriously poor attention span and butterfly-like approach to reading, managed to finish the entire book in just two sittings is a ringing endorsement of its compelling readability.  I honestly can’t remember the last time a novel sucked me in so completely.  Maybe it’s because the setting is the same chapter after chapter that you feel you’re actually there in the hovel, watching the girl who has now become so familiar to you it’s as if you know her for real.  The fact that Lib and Sister Michael have been given a time limit of two weeks to verify or disprove the miracle also drives the book forward as we know that, for good or ill, a conclusion is coming.  I must confess that, when I read the final chapter, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about the ending; on reflection though, I’m pleased the author chose the outcome she did.

This has got to be up there with my top reads of 2017 so far.  Five stars, full marks and any other accolade you can think of, this book gets it.  Oh, and I didn’t get the job – but since it would have meant leaving my beloved book trade behind, I think I’m okay with it.

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“Western Fringes” by Amer Anwar – review

I’ve got something a bit different for you on the blog today!  If you’re a regular visitor to Girl, Reading you’ll know I don’t read an awful lot of crime thrillers but I was lucky enough to be sent a free reading copy by the author and hey, I’m never one to turn down an opportunity to try something a bit different!  It sounds pathetic in the extreme, but one of the main reasons I’m wary of the crime genre is that I have a real aversion, almost hypersensitivity if you will, to any kind of violence or psychological cruelty whether it’s in books or TV and movies.  This novel does undoubtedly have its occasional brutal moments (and one particularly grim one) but in spite of this I was pleased to discover I quite enjoyed it, racing through at breakneck speed, anxious to find out if the characters I was rooting for would emerge from the action unscathed.

Zaq, the novel’s hero, isn’t exactly squeaky clean – he’s recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter – but you can’t help feeling from the off that he’s less of a thug and more a man who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Anyway, as it turns out someone who was squeaky clean wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the situation in which the unfortunate Zaq finds himself.  The owner of the builders’ yard where he works, Mr. Brar, calls him into the office out of the blue and demands that Zaq track down his daughter Rita, who’s gone missing.  If he fails, or even lets slip to anyone else that’s she’s disappeared, Mr. Brar will make sure Zaq’s back in prison before he knows it.  The Brars are a Sikh family, and Zaq assumes this is a case of wanting to protect the family honour, and in all likelihood the end result of the daughter’s liaison with someone of whom her father and brothers don’t approve.  His first instinct is to try and do the bare minimum to get Rita found, pass on her whereabouts to the family and wash his hands of the whole business as soon as possible, but the deeper he’s drawn into the case the more unexpected he finds its complexities and the realisation soon dawns that stepping away with a clear conscience isn’t going to be the option he assumed it would be.

In terms of the plot, I’m stopping right there as I have no intention of spoiling the mystery or suspense for anyone who hasn’t yet read it.  There is a genuine sense of tension throughout as the author isn’t afraid to ramp up the stakes for his characters; suffice to say not everyone will make it through to the final page.  If you like your bad guys unequivocally bad then you won’t be disappointed – there are no mitigating circumstances or tortured psychological explanations for the brutality, just out and out bare-knuckle thuggery.  It makes sense too that the protagonist, although essentially good-hearted, is no stranger to the world of street violence, shady dealing and macho intimidation, as his ability to navigate his way through the various perils becomes infinitely more credible that way.  It’s a world with which I am (very clearly) not familiar, having spent most of my formative years in a picture-postcard village a million miles away from Southall, where the novel is set, so I’m working on the assumption that the author knows his stuff and that this is indeed an accurate reflection of the capital’s criminal underbelly – but even if it isn’t it felt authentic enough that I totally believed it.  It was also interesting from a cultural perspective to read a story set in a section of society where honour violence, while not universally condoned by any means, is a familiar and predictable occurrence.  As a female reader I have to say I found it immensely satisfying to see female characters who took on the predominantly masculine world around them with barely a second thought.  Huge credit has to go to the author too for refusing to fall into the trap of thinking that Strong Female Characters have to be signposted to the reader by having men comment on their fortitude and gutsiness every five minutes.  For that reason alone I’d recommend it!

As I say, it was something quite different for me, and while I confess I do miss the corsets and bustles if I’m away from them for too long, it was interesting to undertake an excursion into unfamiliar territory and try something I wouldn’t normally read.  Am I going to develop a new obsession with dark, gritty thrillers?  Honestly no, but what “Western Fringes” goes to show is how much books can keep on surprising you even when you thought you had yourself pegged!

See you back on the blog soon…

“A Conspiracy of Violence” by Susanna Gregory – review

When you read a book you love AND it’s the first of a long series, it’s a double-whammy of reading joy.  I’m very late to the party with the Thomas Chaloner series (of which this novel marks the beginning) but better late than never.  Of course, being a latecomer to a literary saga brings with it the benefit of having a number of books already written, so you can instantly feed your new obsession by reading several instalments in a row – which I might just be doing in this case.  I can’t take any credit for this discovery myself, however, as it was recommended to me by author and fellow blogger Bernadette Keeling, who’s read some of my reviews and therefore knows my taste pretty well!

It’s set in one of my favourite periods of history, the seventeenth century, not long after the monarchy has been restored to power with the accession of Charles II.  Forget the Tudors – this has got to be one of the most fascinating tines in our nation’s past.  Many who had supported Cromwell and his puritan leanings were dismayed to see a return to licentious behaviour as demonstrated by the new king and his flamboyant court; others were delighted to see the back of the Parliamentarian zealots who had manufactured Charles I’s death.  And some, like a number of characters in this story, were people who were just trying to survive, and who were prepared to bury old allegiances for the sake of staying on the right side of the victors.  The novel’s hero, Thomas Chaloner, is used to leading a double, or at times even a triple, life; when the story begins he has just returned from the Netherlands where he’s been working as a spy.  Political changes mean his role is no longer needed, but coming from a family that included a regicide (in the shape of his uncle) is rather a large stumbling block to employment in Restoration England.  Luckily for him there’s more than one ex-spymaster kicking his heels in 1660s London, and before too long Thomas’ caseload is mounting up, including an intriguing mission on behalf of the Earl of Clarendon to find a cache of gold supposedly hidden inside the Tower of London but never yet found.

When I start reading any new historical crime series my first instinct is to compare it to C J Sansom’s magnificent Shardlake books.  If you’re going to write a series of stories featuring a recurring central character then they need to be something special, and the characterisation in those novels is extraordinary.  If similar books in that genre fall down, it’s often I think because the protagonist, although perfectly likeable, just isn’t captivating enough.  At first I feared that might be the case with Thomas Chaloner, as it took me quite a while to really feel I knew him.  My relationship with him undoubtedly deepened as the book went on however, and by the end I was interested in his personal story as well as the outcomes of the various mysteries, and that’s a definite big tick in the book’s favour.  In fact, considering just how many key characters there are in this story I was really impressed by how well Susanna Gregory managed to flesh them out and create genuine interest in their often complex backstories.  I particularly loved Metje, Thomas’ fiery yet vulnerable Dutch mistress, who finds life increasingly difficult in a city where paranoid xenophobia is on the rise every day.  John Thurloe too is intriguing from first introduction, being Cromwell’s former Spymaster General who is now working for… underground Parliamentarians? The resurgent Royalists?  Or maybe both?  In this novel as in life, very few people wear their heart unequivocally on their sleeve, and most keep us in the dark about their true loyalties and motivations until the final pages.

The main difficulty for me came in the first two or three chapters; the political situation is so complex, the characters so numerous and their allegiances so complicated that to start with there’s quite a lot of exposition that results in some clunky and contrived dialogue.  I also struggled to remember who was working for whom in this world of subterfuge and had to do a fair bit of flicking back to read certain paragraphs again as a reminder.  After this slightly ropey early section though the plot started to take care of itself without constant explanation and the book really took off.  More than anything else, what stayed with me was what an incredibly lonely place England could be at that time.  Families and individuals whose political beliefs meant they were in the ascendancy only a few years earlier suddenly found themselves at best shunned and at worst in danger following the abrupt switch in regime.  As I said earlier in the review, I find this one of the most absorbing periods in history, and it’s to her great credit that the author really digs deep into not only political but social history, enabling us to appreciate the infinite nuances of this time of great upheaval as it would have played out in the lives of ordinary people.

I’m really looking forward to reading more of this series (at the time of writing I believe there are eight instalments, hooray!) and adding another historical fiction writer to my bookshelves.  And now that I’ve clambered back onto the reading treadmill after a bit of a hiatus, I hope to have more reviews for you very soon.

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“Into the Water” by Paula Hawkins – review

Thrillers can be challenging books to review as it’s so difficult to talk about them without inadvertently giving away plot spoilers and ruining the suspense of the story.  Be assured though I’ll do my best to give you a meaningful blog post without revealing too much!

I’m one of the ever diminishing few who hasn’t read Paul Hawkins’ astonishingly successful debut novel “The Girl on the Train”, and in a way I’m quite glad about that as it meant I came at this novel with no expectations and could read it without making any comparisons to her previous work.  It’ll be interesting for me to hear, as more and more people read “Into the Water”, whether the prevailing opinion is that it’s a better or worse book than the first.  All I can say is that for the most part I found it a really enjoyable and memorable thriller, even if there were a few elements that didn’t quite convince me.

At the centre of the story is a patch of water known to locals as the Drowning Pool.  On summer days it’s a magnet for children to play and teenagers to congregate, at other times it’s a picturesque spot for solitude and contemplation; but despite its beauty it can never escape the negative associations that have developed over the centuries due to the number of women who have perished in its depths.  Some of the earliest victims were those suspected of witchcraft who were deliberately drowned, and they were followed in turn by other violent deaths – murders, suicides and some cases where the truth of events still remains a mystery.  The latest woman to come to an unfortunate end in the notorious pool is Nel Abbott, single mother to a teenage daughter Lena, and the estranged sister of Jules, who reluctantly returns to their childhood home to sort out Nel’s affairs.  The two haven’t spoken for years following a dramatic falling-out, and Jules’ initial reaction is to resent her sister’s suicide – for that’s what most people seem to believe it was – as a final, spiteful bid to attract attention and drag Jules back to a place she hoped to have left behind for good.  Before long though the question upon which so many mystery stories have hinged over the decades – did she jump or was she pushed? – rears its head and the investigation to uncover the truth begins.

The story hops between the aftermath of Nel’s death and the events that led up to it, and is told through a multitude of voices: members of Nel’s family, the investigating police officers and an extensive cast of local people who were connected to Nel in some way.  At first I wasn’t sure I liked having such a large number of narrators; it takes a while to feel a connection to the characters when their contributions are so fragmented.  As the novel progressed, however, I found the technique began to work really well.  Nel, it transpires, had created a bit of a stir among her tight-knit, somewhat insular rural community with her controversial project on the history of the Drowning Pool, and the short, sharp bursts of narration from the different voices perfectly reflects the frenzy of circulating gossip, speculation and suspicion that follows her death.  It also ensures that the book gallops along at a pretty brisk pace, and I found myself failing miserably to put it down, constantly thinking, “just ONE more chapter”!  I’ve abandoned a few psychological thrillers over the past year because although they were fast-moving and intricately plotted I simply didn’t care what happened to the main characters, but in this case I absolutely did.  That’s not to say they’re all likeable (in fact there are a few who I found hideous) but somehow I was still desperate to find out how their stories ended.

It was the tying up of all the different story strands that I felt let the book down slightly.  I would never have guessed the outcome of the mystery surrounding Nel’s death, and I was pleased to have been taken well and truly by surprise.  The story arc for a couple of the other characters though I didn’t buy.  [Small spoiler alert!]  Following a melodramatic and for me unbelievable event in the later stages of the book, one person suddenly undergoes what appears to be a complete personality transplant, which I felt was a jarring attempt to bring closure to a situation that was far too psychologically complex to ever have been resolved in that way.  I was also left with a few unanswered questions after the final page, although that could be down to my personal preference for neat endings and a deliberate decision by the author to leave some things ambiguous rather than any oversight on her part.  Whatever the novel’s minor flaws, Paula Hawkins certainly knows how to tell a gripping story, and for its compelling narrative, excitement and genuine mystery I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.

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“Passion” by Jude Morgan – review

There will be very few of us who haven’t been there at some point in our lives: utterly engulfed in a passion that ruthlessly eradicates reason, rationality and sometimes even morality.  To conjure up the memory of that feeling is easy; to put it adequately into words infinitely less so.  On the cover of this book there’s a quote by Tracy Chevalier calling it her “book of the year”, excessive praise you might think for a novel that looks at first glance from the jacket and title as if it’s going to be a romping and perhaps sensationalistic period romance.  I can tell you though, she’s not wrong.  The main reason why?  Because the incredibly talented Jude Morgan knows – and most importantly can convincingly describe – down to the last heartbeat what it’s like to be consumed and even obsessed by passion for another person.

“Passion” is based on real events, specifically the lives of four women who were at one time the partners or lovers of Byron, Shelley and Keats.  Caroline Lamb was a very high status aristocrat who fell under Byron’s spell, and became emotionally and socially ruined as a result.  The chalk to her cheese, Augusta Leigh, was unassuming and gentle-spirited, going through life almost unnoticed until her relationship with Byron turned her world upside down, the looming spectre of incest haunting her for evermore.  Mary Shelley possessed a fiercely astute mind that captivated Shelley the poet, but even she ultimately failed to intellectualise the turbulent and unconventional relationship that she and the bohemian Shelley shared.  Finally there was Fanny Brawne, whose love for John Keats was probably the least tainted of the four, but whose happiness (as I’m sure you know but spoiler alert anyway!) was cut short by the poet’s early death from consumption.

One of the reasons I adored this book so much was the fact that although, with the possible exception of Mary Shelley, the women in question were all far less well-known than the men they loved, this whole story is truly about them.  We follow all four from their early childhood and watch as nature and nurture shape them into the adults they become; Byron, Shelley and Keats move in and out of their lives but it’s the lives of the female characters that frame the novel.  The text jumps between first and third person narration (the first person used particularly effectively later in the book as Caroline’s mental state starts to unravel) but it’s always the women’s voices we hear.

And as I mentioned before, they are such authentic voices.  Time and again throughout the novel there are perfect gems of sentences so pin-point accurate in their depiction of love, grief or heartbreak that you stop and think, this author has been here; he knows first-hand how this feels.   I know as well there’s absolutely no reason a male writer shouldn’t be able to inhabit a female character’s head convincingly if he’s talented enough, but the skill with which he does so still took me by surprise as I can’t think of a male author I’ve read for a very long time who writes in this way.

Despite its focus on female characters though, the men who feature in the book are equally well-rounded and believable.  In fact, the cast is pretty numerous, but everyone is drawn with immense care, and there are actually some cracking smaller characters who may only appear every now and then but who fill the novel with glorious colour.  Jude Morgan, rather like Dickens, excels at creating characters which are both comical and loathsome at the same time.  Mrs. Clairmont, Mary’s screeching, hollering and frequently hysterical stepmother was one of my particular favourites, as was Annabella, Byron’s wife, whose obsessively saintly attempts to save incestuous Augusta’s soul perch somewhere on a fine line between laughable and sinister.

It’s a very sad novel in some ways – to say the course of true love doesn’t run smooth for these women would be an understatement – but its sadness lies not so much in the momentous tragic events that pepper the story but rather in the sense that, as an ageing Coleridge puts it in the final chapter, “There is a great secret, and it is this: that human life is intolerable.”

Without wishing to end on too bleak a note, this is the kind of love story I like: the one which acknowledges that the vast majority of relationships don’t end happily, that one partner is often going to value a relationship more than the other, and that sometimes the people we want to be with we can never have.  If you like your romance and your historical fiction treated with sharp intelligence then this is the book for you.

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