One night in a remote hunting lodge with a Hollywood director causes an international scandal that wrecks Astrid’s glittering stage career, and her marriage. Her ex-husband, the charismatic Scottish actor Magnus Fellowes, goes on to find global fame, while Astrid retreats to a disintegrating Sussex windmill.
Now 82, she lives there still, with a troupe of dachshunds and her long-suffering friend, Mrs Baker, who came to clean twenty years ago and never left. But the past is catching up with them. There has been an ‘Awful Incident’ at the windmill; the women are in shock. Then Astrid hears that Magnus, now on his death bed, is writing a tell-all memoir. Outraged, she sets off for Scotland, determined to stop him.
Windmill Hill is the story of two very different women, both with painful pasts, and their eccentric friendship – deep, enduring, and loyal to the last.
I’m a big fan of Lucy Atkins and I love the multi-faceted female characters she creates and Windmill Hill is no exception. Astrid is in her eighties and shares her rather unique home with her friend Mrs Baker and several dachshund’s named after brands of gin. They live in a cottage attached to a windmill which has a quite a history but is now derelict and badly in need of renovation. We find the women in the aftermath of a terrible incident, something that is referred to but not explicit. A young writer is on her way to talk to Astrid about her ex-husband’s memoir. Nina has been hired by Magnus’s son Dessie and it’s Dessie who is shaping his father’s story and perhaps censoring the less palatable aspects of his life. Nina’s visit is about a party that took place in an old Tudor Lodge, where one thing happened between Magnus, the director Rohls and an aspiring young actress called Sally. Astrid was present and was blamed by the tabloids for the whole thing, it ruined her reputation, her career and her marriage. Dessie wants Nina to stick to the ‘official’ story, but Nina knows it’s not the truth and would like to hear it from Astrid. There’s also the fact that Magnus is dying and he would like to see Astrid one final time. Will she travel all the way to Scotland to confront him?
The more recent ‘incident’ that took place only a few months ago is only hinted at and involves Mrs Baker. She has always been mysterious, coming to the cottage as a cleaner, with no family or friends to speak of, then staying. I was immediately intrigued by her past, what was she escaping from? There are hints of a man called Alan, possibly a violent ex and I wondered whether her past had finally caught up with her. We’re seeing this through Astrid’s eyes and having it all replayed through Astrid’s memory. It didn’t take long for me to wonder whether Astrid’s memory was reliable. There’s an opacity to her recollection and the information comes in fits and starts. At one point I wondered if we were delving into magic realism, because she almost seems to slip back into the past like a time traveller. I think it was the intensity of the memories that drew her back. Some of these memories she avoided for a long time, popping them in a lockable box and tucking them to the back of her mind. So, once she did open the box it was like reliving the memory all over again. By dropping these little nuggets of information, the author kept me reading and wanting to know more too. However, Astrid also learns what can happen when these locked memories are addressed and let into the open. Lucy has a brilliant grasp of psychology and complicated relationship dynamics. We often see our ‘self’ as the constant, never changing core of us, but Lucy has been so clever here by showing us how fragmented, fleeting and changeable the self can be. There are maybe some core traits, but our sense as self can be eroded, altered by experience and through these women she shows that life has seasons.
The women’s relationship is the real strength of this novel and I loved that these two women lived together and are each other’s significant person. They’re not in a sexual relationship, but they are each other’s support, strength and companionship. These qualities are seriously underrated and when I look back in my own life it’s women who have kept me standing and helped me survive some of life’s hardest experiences. Some of the happiest times in my life have also been with my women friends. There’s also the fact that both women are survivors and that has created a strong bond between them. What better way to live your later years than with your best friend? Soul mates don’t have to be lovers. Men don’t come across well in this novel, although age and perspective have mellowed some of them and allowed them to be vulnerable and honest. Nina is a lovely character who I really warmed to soon after her arrival. The fact that she’s giving Astrid a right to reply speaks well of her, because she could have taken the money and written the book Dessie wanted. She’s more honest than that and is risking her contract by travelling to the windmill and asking awkward questions. She’s also open to friendship with these eccentric older women and their various dogs in wooly jumpers. A lot of people overlook friendship with people older than them, but they can be the richest relationships and I’ve learned so much from friendships with older men and women. Nina also wants to help the women with the windmill, a character in it’s own right. Through letters that Astrid finds in the windmill she’s let into the world of Lady Constance Battiscombe who owned the windmill in the 1920’s. I loved her antics and how they scandalised the village. It felt like the windmill also had a life of many seasons from the terrible story of the little girl killed by one of the sails, to Lady Constance’s bohemian scandals. Now, with the help of Nina, the windmill will shelter Mrs Baker, Astrid, the dogs and Tony Blair the taxidermy stoat, but will last beyond them too into another season. Full of wit, warmth and fabulous characters this is a great addition to Lucy’s body of work.
Meet the Author
Lucy Atkins is an award-winning British author and journalist. Her latest novel, MAGPIE LANE, was picked as a ‘best book of 2020’ by BBC Radio 4’s Open Book, the GUARDIAN, the TELEGRAPH and GOOD HOUSEKEEPING MAGAZINE. Her other novels are: THE NIGHT VISITOR (which has been optioned for TV), THE MISSING ONE and THE OTHER CHILD. Lucy is book critic for The Sunday Times and has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Times, and many magazines. She teaches on the creative writing Masters degree at the University of Oxford.
She has written several non-fiction books including the Amazon #1 parenting guide, FIRST TIME PARENT (Collins).
For news, events and offers see http://www.lucyatkins.com
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