Posted in Netgalley

The Madwomen’s Ball by Victoria Mas.

The Salpêtrière asylum, 1885. All of Paris is in thrall to Doctor Charcot and his displays of hypnotism on women who have been deemed mad or hysterical, outcasts from society. But the truth is much more complicated – for these women are often simply inconvenient, unwanted wives or strong-willed daughters. Once a year a grand ball is held at the hospital. For the Parisian elite, the Mad Women’s Ball is the highlight of the social season; for the women themselves, it is a rare moment of hope.

There are definitely some interesting women living in the asylum at Saltpiétre, under the care of Dr Charcot. We are introduced to Eugénie first, who lives with her parents, brother and grandmother in Paris. While she seems like an archetypal society young lady, there’s something more to Eugénie. Since she was an adolescent she has been seeing and communicating with dead people. This isn’t something she wanted and she’s been keeping it a secret for many years. Not even her brother Théophile or her grandmother know what’s been happening. She finds herself having strange physical symptoms like her limbs feeling heavy, then someone might come to her. One evening while attending to her grandmother before bed, her grandfather appears and starts to tell her that something precious, thought lost forever, is caught under the drawers of her dressing table. Sure enough, as Eugénie takes the drawers out she finds a sentimental piece of jewellery that her grandmother never imagined she’d see again. She trusts her grandmother, so out pours the story that she can communicate with dead people. Eugénie trusts that her secret is safe and never suspects that she could be betrayed by those she loves the most.

This novel’s strength lies in the portrayal of it’s women and the shocking truth of how easy it is for a man to have a woman placed in an asylum. Even more horrifying for me was how the women became objects: a father’s cold decision to choose his reputation and offload her like a defective belonging; a doctor using the women in his performance as an expert in his field; the grotesque spectacle of dressing up the women in costumes to be paraded around in front of Paris society at the ball. The interesting relationship between Geneviève and Eugénie kept me reading, but there was also a fascinating role for the older woman Therése. She seems to be quietly knitting in the corner, but there’s a lot more going on with this woman and she is vital to the smooth running of the ward. This is a fascinating piece of historical fiction, with a feminist perspective and the added bonus of a supernatural element. It questions what makes us ‘mad’ – is someone who believes in spiritualism any more mentally ill than someone who believes in God and the events of the Bible? I definitely recommend this and have to mention the absolutely stunning cover too.

Posted in Netgalley

Two Women in Rome by Elizabeth Buchan.

Regular readers may remember how much I loved Elizabeth Buchan’s last novel The Museum of Broken Promises, in fact it was one of my top twenty of the year. So, I was very excited to be approved to read this via NetGalley. The story is split into two timelines and follows the lives of two British women who spend some time living in Rome. Lottie Archer arrives at the Eternal City as a new wife and with a new job as an archivist at the Archivo Espatriati. Her very first task is to archive the papers and journal of a woman called Nina Lawrence who worked as a gardener in Rome in the late 1970s. This was a difficult time for the country socially and politically, known as the ‘Years of Lead’ – a period which stretched from the 1960s to the 1980s and resulted in many incidents of far right and far left terrorism. Nina’s task was to redesign gardens that still lay devastated by WW2, something she was passionate about and very talented. Within her papers, is a large leather journal, rather worse for wear and full of drawings and pressed plants. However, Lottie also finds a painting of the Annunciation – the moment where the Virgin Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel to tell her she will be the mother of Jesus, the son of God. Lottie thinks it may be medieval, due to the colours used and the iconography. This piques her interest and she is disturbed to learn that Nina was murdered in Rome, and that very few people attended her funeral in the Protestant cemetery. Interestingly though, one mourner was a Catholic priest, which strokes Lottie as very unusual. She wants to find out more about the painting, but she also finds herself sucked into the mystery of what happened to Nina, who murdered her and why did she seem so friendless in this beautiful city?

I found the novel a little slow at first. I didn’t click with Lottie straight away, the detail and discussion of medieval art was quite dense (or I was) and the complexity of the political situation wasn’t always easy to follow. I also thought the intricacies and machinations of the Catholic Church might be a little difficult to penetrate for those who don’t know much about Catholicism – luckily I am one, with convent teaching under my belt, so this was not so difficult for me. However, I did like that the author didn’t simplify these areas of the book because in a way they added to the mystery of a city that has an incredibly complicated history. I was drawn in most by the story of Nina, just like Lottie is. I could understand why her story would get under your skin as someone interested in the past and trying to make sense of it. There is a kinship between the two women, even though they can never meet. Lottie is unsure of her position in Rome for several reasons. Firstly, when she arrives to work at the archive, her new role hasn’t quite been vacated. She moves into the apartment that her husband Tom shared with his previous partner Clare, and all around her are memories that don’t belong to her (including an ugly lamp, that should be kept because it works perfectly well, according to their formidable housekeeper). All of this is compounded by an underlying sense of abandonment, formed because she was left by her birth mother. There’s something lost about Nina that she latches onto and the more she finds out, the more she wonders whether Nina was more than a gardener?

Nina is a rather fascinating woman, who shares Lottie’s sense of rootlessness and lack of ties. There is definitely a deeply woven reason for Nina’s death, involving politics, security services, the church and a rather unwise, but beautiful love affair that unfolds in her journal. It is this aspect of her character that really humanises her for me, she becomes a real, living and breathing person and it is then even more tragic when the end comes. One thing both narratives capture beautifully is the city itself. Just like the narrative structure of the book, we get a sense of Rome as place where the past is very closely layered under the present. I thought about the tunnels and cave structures that run under the city’s streets, some still populated with WW2 vehicles, as an embodiment of this feeling. The present is full of tourists, rushing around on their itineraries getting a sense of the past and present city, but not necessarily the world underneath their feet. The author evokes the sights and smells beautifully: describing the less followed paths, the street fountains carved with dolphins and maidens, the detail of the plants so precious to Nina, the smells and sight of the deli counters full of salami, olives and beautifully ripe tomatoes. I found myself craving a trip to Italy all the time while reading!

However, she also shows its impenetrability to outsiders who know nothing of Catholicism, Roman etiquette or it’s slightly corrupt ways of getting business done. This is captured most beautifully in Lottie’s burgeoning relationship with their housekeeper. I also enjoyed her friendship with the book binder, who she asks to authenticate the painting she finds without understanding his significance. The background on medieval painting is vital here, not just to understand the symbolism within the traditional aspects, but to identify those that are far more transgressive and intensely personal. This is a complicated mystery/thriller, mixed with a travelogue of Rome and an intense love story. It asks questions about where we belong and whether our final destinations have been reached by choice, accident or a deep sense of duty to our family, our religion and our country. By the end I realised I’d become so enthralled, I was very sad to leave Rome behind.

Thank you to Atlantic Books for my digital copy via NetGalley.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint.

“What I did not know was that I had hit upon a truth of womanhood: however blameless a life we led, the passions and the greed of men could bring us to ruin, and there was nothing we could do.”

I know we shouldn’t choose books based on their cover, but I wanted to mention straight away how stunning the finished hardback of this book really is. A gorgeous design of vines in midnight blue and gold, this would jump out at you in any book store. We all know the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Everything is black and white when we’re small children, so we take in myths like this, accepting everything we’re told. It’s just a story isn’t it? King Minos has a monster called The Minotaur that’s half man and half bull. Every year the city of Athens must send seven of its best sons and daughters to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. Then one year, Theseus arrives in place of one of the chosen boys, with a plan to kill the Minotaur and stop this blood shed. Minos’s eldest daughter, Ariadne, falls in love at first sight and vows to help Theseus, expecting that she will travel back to Athens with him.

However, the plan doesn’t unfold as she expected and we follow her story as she wakes up on a neighbouring Greek Island alone. Having done a small amount of Latin and Greek at school, I’ve read many of the Greek myths and my abiding impression was how cruel the gods were. In modern Christian faith believers tend to trust in God being a comfort and help in troubled times, but these classical gods are usually causing the troubled times. They are either disguising themselves as animals, committing rapes against human women, having relationships with humans, but then retreating to be unfathomable, mysterious, beings when it suits them. I would have found the Greek’s concept of gods to be frightening – they are capricious, childlike and move humans round like chess pieces. So, knowing that the gods interfered in the lives of King Minos and his Queen did not surprise me.

In this feminist retelling, Jennifer Saint deliberately places the women in the centre of this myth, where they should be. It subtly changes it’s meaning and makes us think again about the version we have always known. King Minos’s daughters, Ariadne and Phaedre, have a living example of how women’s lives are played with by male gods in their own mother Pasiphae, who was tricked into falling in love with a bull. Minos tried to steal Poseidon’s incredible creation of the Cretan bull. In his anger Poseidon filled Pasiphae with lust for the bull and from their rather undignified union came the girl’s brother Asterion, half boy half calf. Possibly thinking of her own troubles, their mother tells them the full story of Medusa, including the part prior to her entanglement with Perseus. In a late version of her story, written by Ovid, Medusa was a beautiful girl with lustrous long hair, and was a priestess of Athena. Poseidon was beaten by Athena into becoming patron of the capital city of Greece, Athens. To punish Athena he ‘seduced’ or raped Medusa in Athena’s temple. However, instead of punishing Poseidon, Athena punished Medusa by turning her hair into snakes. The only version I was ever told, when studying classics at school, was Medusa’s part in the story of Perseus – women are of course, only bit players in the story of these incredible male heroes. These part stories, accepted and understood by me as a young teenager, now make me angry. I was only ever given the male version of these tales and I can understand what pushed the author to write this.

‘I only knew Medusa as a monster. I had not thought she had ever been anything else. The stories of Perseus did not allow for a Medusa with a story of her own.’

As usual though, because I have a disability, the book make me think about how disability and difference is portrayed in the myths. There were some similarities between Asterion and Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As I was reading about the Minotaur’s origins I started to have feelings for this creature who never asked to exist. The narrator tells us about her mother after his birth, when she’s blank and exhausted but:

‘she cradled a mass of blankets to her breast and she pressed her nose softly to her baby’s head. He snuffled, hiccuped and opened a dark eye to stare into mine as I moved slowly forward. I noticed that it was fringed with long, dark eyelashes. A chubby hand fluttered against my mother’s breast; one tiny, perfect pink nail at the end of each finger. I could not yet see beneath the blanket where the soft pink infant legs gave way at the ankles to dark fur and hard, stony hooves. The infant was a monster and the mother a hollowed-out shell, but I was a child and drawn to the frail spark of tenderness in the room.’

She describes this special time, before he was monstrous and how she felt, even about the more unusual aspects of him.

‘I reached that final inch and bridged the gulf between us. My fingers stroked the slick fur of his brow, beneath the bulging edifice of rocky horns that emerged at his temples. I let my hand sweep gently across the soft spot just between his eyes. With a barely perceptible movement, his jaw loosened and a little huff of breath blew warm against my face.’

She realises he is not a monster, he is her brother. Inexplicably he moves from milk to craving raw meat and eating passing rats. However, Ariadne does not fear him and instead of thinking ahead, she focuses on the here and now and describes trying to teach him table manners and how to be gentle. Even she has realised that Asterion is a victim, and feels a ‘raw pity’ for him that brings tears to her eyes. In the same way that it isn’t Medusa’s fault she is raped in Athena’s temple, it’s not Asterion’s fault that he is created the way he is. Ariadne describes him as Poseidon’s cruel joke and humiliation for a man who has never even deigned to lay his eyes on him. That is until Minos sees he can use Asterion for his own ends. Minos was only proud of his potential monstrousness and the fear he might instil in his enemies. It is Minos who instructs Daedalus to construct the labyrinth that secures Asterion as a slave and even though there is pride in his new weapon, he doesn’t even allow him to keep his own name.

‘And so Asterion became the Minotaur. My mother’s private constellation of shame intermingled with love and despair no longer; instead, he became my father’s display of dominance to the world. I saw why he proclaimed him the Minotaur, stamping this divine monstrosity with his own name and aligning its legendary status with his own from its very birth.’

I was fascinated with the author’s storytelling, it is spellbinding. She shows us that for powerful men and gods like Minos and Poseidon, whether you are a woman or different like Asterion your only worth in this life, is wrapped up in your value to men. If Asterion had remained gentle and docile, Minos would still have banished him in some way. Pasiphae’s psychological break after his birth shows what happens to women who give birth to daughters and monsters. This is a book that truly makes you think, not just about the historical myths we’re told, but who tells them and why? It also made me think about the stories we are told today, by our world leaders (still largely men). How do they shape the way we view the world? Which heroes do they hold up as examples? Which monsters do they wield to control us? Like Ariadne we must learn to question. She learns to her cost, that even the man who appears to be her saviour, is more interested in his own glory. There is so much to enjoy here and on so many different levels. This is a stunning debut and shouldn’t be missed.

‘No longer was my world one of brave heroes; I was learning all too swiftly the women’s pain that throbbed unspoken through the tales of their feats.’

Meet The Author


Jennifer Saint grew up reading Greek mythology and was always drawn to the untold stories hidden within the myths. After thirteen years as a high school English teacher, she wrote ARIADNE which tells the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur from the perspective of Ariadne – the woman who made it happen. Jennifer Saint is now a full-time author, living in Yorkshire, England, with her husband and two children.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier.

The King’s General is not usually people’s first choice when they start to read Du Maurier’s novels. Most read her more famous novels: Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel or Jamaica Inn. Yet this piece of historical fiction was my first Du Maurier novel and I first read it when I was a girl. To understand why you probably need to know something about my childhood. For the most part I’d been an active and lively tomboy, out climbing trees, riding ponies and gallivanting round the countryside with my younger brother. Then, when I was 11 years old I had an accident while somersaulting at school and ended up with two fractured vertebrae and a crushed disc in my spine. I was very lucky. The fractures were mid-thoracic and because they broke down and away from the spine my spinal cord was undamaged. I was centimetres away from becoming paraplegic. I missed the last few months of primary school, instead going up to the local grammar school in the autumn. The accident did cause long term problems though. A lack of proper rehabilitation meant the muscles around the break seized up affecting my ability to use my shoulder and arm. Even now, repetitive movements like typing or painting can seize up my whole right side. I have a chiropractor for regular acupuncture and manipulation to free up that side.

The Kings General was the first time I encountered an adult character with a disability. Of course before my accident I’d read Pollyanna, a rather saintly little girl who can’t walk after a fall and is still looking for things to be glad about. I’d also read the What Katy Did series where the spirited and tomboyish Katy has a fall from the yard swing and can’t walk. She spends a year as an ‘invalid’ and the experience quietens her and she learns to run a household from her bed, becoming a more tamed and acceptable version of femininity. The King’s General tells the story of Honor, a lively young woman who in 1653 decides to write her life story, based around the love she had for the charismatic soldier Richard Grenville. She then takes us back 30 years to when she was 10 years old and her brother Kit brings his bride Gartred back to the family home of Lanrest. Gartred is from the very important Grenville family and doesn’t make a great impression on the slightly more humble Harris family. She has a sharp tongue and Kit thought she flirted with other men, especially his brother Robin. For Honor their marriage is an eye opener and she learns a lesson about marriage:

“For the first time I realized, with something of a shock, that marriage was not the romantic fairy legend I had imagined it to be, but a great institution, a bargain between important families, with the tying-up of property.”

The marriage is short-lived as Kit dies from smallpox, and when Gartred leaves, Honor hopes to never see another Grenville again. Fate has something different in store as she encounters a dashing young soldier on her 18th birthday. She visits Plymouth Sound with her brother and sister to watch His Majesty’s Fleet sail into Plymouth Sound, followed by a banquet held by the Duke of Buckingham. Richard Grenville is quite sarcastic, even rude, and Honor has some barbed and witty exchanges with him. They immediately have a rapport and he actually shows his kinder side when Honor has to leave early. They meet in secret after this, often meeting in an apple tree at the bottom of the orchard where Honor likes to climb up and read. They’re clearly very compatible and start to fall in love with each other. Honor might just get the fairy tale after all as Richard decides to speak to her family and proposes marriage. However, their happiness comes to an abrupt end the day before their wedding when Honor has a terrible accident when they’re out hunting with falcons. Honor’s horse is spooked, becomes disoriented and falls into a ravine. Sadly, Honor’s injuries are serious as her legs and spine are shattered and she can no longer walk. Realising she will probably never walk or have children, she calls off the engagement and tells Richard to be happy with another woman. They don’t see each other until civil war breaks out and Honor must leave Lanrest where she was living alone to go to her sister’s house Menabilly. It is here where Honor will encounter Richard again. Will things have changed between them?

From this point in the story we start to get Du Maurier’s trademark mystery elements and as usual she is very adept at creating tension and suspicion. I really enjoyed the way that her two main characters are so linked to the land around them. Their emotions are often mirrored by the weather and landscape in a rather Brontë way. Her strength here though is in these characters, who love each other despite being able to see their flaws. Honor finds the older Richard bitter, proud and arrogant, but just as attractive as ever. However, he’s quite gentle and tender with Honor and there’s a scene where she even shows him her damaged legs. There’s a feel of Heathcliff about him in these war years, as he’s quite cruel. Honor observes that war seems to make beasts of men. I enjoyed this book because it showed me that an accident doesn’t have to stop you being you. Yes, experience changes us in some ways but her accident doesn’t stop Honor being adventurous or taking on a challenge. It also doesn’t mean she has to become quiet and ladylike. Most of all, Honor is still loved. Despite what happened Richard still loves her, and this was the first book that showed me life doesn’t stop because you have a disability.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Starlings of Bucharest by Sarah Armstrong.

This is the second in the Moscow Wolves series of novels, following on from The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt. I’ve been told by other readers that here we meet some of it’s characters, but from a different perspective. Our hero is Edward Walker, known as Ted. He’s trying to make his way as a journalist in London, after leaving the working class fishing area he grew up in for something different. His career hasn’t taken off as he would have liked and he’s drifting into debt. So when he gets the chance to work for a film magazine, with an assignment to travel to Romania and interview a famous film director he jumps at the opportunity. However, this is the 1970s and Romania is in the grip of Communism. A visiting Westerner is very likely to be treated with suspicion and his plans to travel on to the Moscow film festival could be equally eventful. This sets the scene for an intelligent and different thriller.

For the first few chapters of the book I felt thoroughly confused by what was going on, but I started to realise that Ted is equally confused. He has a driver/ guide and each day he expects to meet with his interviewee, but it doesn’t seem to happen. There was a random comical moment where his guide asked if he could have Ted’s trousers when he left. The author creates an atmospheric picture of this complex destination and all it’s contradictions. Ted notes that people are picking lime blossom in the park and observes that they’re so hungry they’re eating from the trees. His guide corrects him, they’re picking lime blossom to make tea. The author conveys the lovely, well maintained public spaces. Yet, there is also a drabness to everything. The food is bad, the clothes are dull and shops seem empty. Ted observes: ‘It was just a place of waiting and brown paint’. Then there are the restrictions and the guide who’s really a minder, ready to challenge every wrong or damaging assumption made.There were moments where I was just an unsure as Ted about what was really going on. The first time was very early on in Bucharest, when his guide diverts him to a lakeside where a group of men are fishing. All at the same time, Ted observes how beautiful it is but also how isolated, just the sort of place you might take someone to kill them. I really felt like I was in Cold War Europe. Equally, the sections in London felt like the 1970s, slightly worn and decaying, with seedy bedsits, a sense of desperation and simmering violence.

I was interested in the incredible detail the security services go into when looking for recruits. It’s a master class in psychological manipulation. They consider everything about the subject – his clothing, his food and drink choices, his likes and dislikes. They watch behaviour. Who do they trust? Who is important to them? They look in their waste bins and listen to their phone calls. What they’re looking for is a weakness. A way in. Whatever it takes to turn them. Then they bring in the bait – if he has a weakness for women, then a beautiful woman to tempt him from the straight and narrow. I’m a trained therapist and I could learn a thing or two from the listening skills employed here. They’re looking for chinks in the armour. Something they can exploit. For Ted that could be a case of never feeling heard or valued. His concern about wanting to get on. It could even be his naivety, decency and willingness to help. So, Ted is noticed by security services and when he returns to Moscow for the film festival he is watched carefully.

What was most interesting to me, was how Soviet agents used class difference as leverage. We’re used to public schoolboy spies, recruited at Oxbridge and I think this difference was used really well. Ted notices that there are opportunities for people from working class backgrounds in Moscow, perhaps more than in England. This is the chink in Ted’s armour and leaves him open to exploitation in a regime where security services have an ideology to push. There were sections that plodded a bit, but that’s maybe because Ted is a very steady, plodding sort of character. He wants to break into Fleet Street as a journalist but I doubt that he has the sheer brass neck and ambition it takes to get there. He seems like a man who will always end up where he is by accident rather than design. As one character observes ‘any idiot can be a useful one’. The author kept me guessing all the way through. We are learning as Ted is learning, and he does a lot of growing up too. Aside from the George Smiley series, the historical era of the 1970s Cold War hasn’t often been depicted in spy fiction, so I felt I was reading something new in the genre. All in all the stage is set for an interesting book three in this intelligent and unusual series.

Meet The Author

Sarah Armstrong is the author of four novels, most recently The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt and The Starlings of Bucharest. She is also the author of A Summer of Spying, a short non fiction work about her experience of jury service during the Covid-19 pandemic, authority, truth, and the surveillance we are all exposed to. Sarah teaches undergraduate and postgraduate creative writing with the Open University. She lives in Essex with her husband and four children.

Posted in Netgalley

The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea.

The sky is clear, star-stamped and silvered by the waxing gibbous moon.

No planes have flown over the islands tonight; no bombs have fallen for over a year.

___________

Orkney, 1940.

Five hundred Italian prisoners-of-war arrive to fortify these remote and windswept islands. Resentful islanders are fearful of the enemy in their midst, but not orphaned twin sisters Dorothy and Constance. Already outcasts, they volunteer to nurse all prisoners who are injured or fall sick. Soon Dorothy befriends Cesare, an artist swept up by the machine of war and almost broken by the horrors he has witnessed. She is entranced by his plan to build an Italian chapel from war scrap and sea debris, and something beautiful begins to blossom. But Con, scarred from a betrayal in her past, is afraid for her sister; she knows that people are not always what they seem.

Soon, trust frays between the islanders and outsiders, and between the sisters – their hearts torn by rival claims of duty and desire.

A storm is coming . . .

In the tradition of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Metal Heart is a hauntingly rich Second World War love story about courage, freedom and the essence of what makes us human during the darkest of times.

This book is stunningly beautiful, so much so that I had to sit and think in the quiet when I’d finished it. It’s so rich in folklore, historical detail, the trauma of war and bereavement that I know I could pick it up to read again and still find something new. I immediately ordered a signed copy for my forever shelf, because it is so special. What did I love about it? The Scottish folklore, the incredible landscape, the community, the dignity of people facing the hardest times of their lives. Then amidst the chaos, violence and confinement, beauty emerges in the shape of a deep, immediate, connection and growing love between two people who can’t even speak the same language. The counterpart to this human story is the Italian Chapel, built out of the scraps of metal huts and concrete the prisoners are allowed. Yet from these humble materials a building of true beauty emerges, that still stands today. It made me emotional to think about the lovers, but also the patience and faith of these incredible men who needed a place to worship, a piece of home.

Dorothy and Constance live on Selkie Holm, a small island close to Orkney. They are isolated outcasts, strange simply because of their doubling, but also because they’re thought to have bad luck. There are myths about the island and the selkie women that might lure a man into the water. People go missing there and the old fishermen who gather in the tavern love to swap old stories about the strange shapes seen in the water. It’s said that if you live there you might go mad. Besides, the girls have had bad luck enough with the drowning of their parents as they tried to row to Kirkwall hospital in a storm. People mutter that it isn’t right for two young girls to live there alone. Surely they must need other people? Yet, that’s exactly what Con doesn’t need. They live in the bothy because of a traumatic event that happened in Kirkwall and now she’s frightened of people, particularly men. So when it’s announced at a town meeting that Italian prisoners will be housed on Selkie Holm, Con is terrified. Their protests fall on deaf ears, since the sinking of the Royal Elm, Churchill has decided barriers must be built to prevent invasion. The prisoners will build the barricades and soon there are huts and barbed wire and men with boots all in Con’s place of safety. Worst of all, Angus McLeod has been given a job as a guard on the island and the girls want to avoid him most of all.

This is a story about freedom for all three main characters. Of course Cesare is the one literally behind a wire fence, but Dot and Con’s bothy is a prison of their own making. Watching each of them try to inch towards freedom in their own ways is moving and upholds my belief as a therapist that everyone is capable of change and even in the most straitened circumstances we still have choices. Cesare finds freedom in the infirmary where he is cared for, in the Major’s office helping with correspondence, in the building of the beautiful chapel and the first time he sets eyes on Dorothy or Dorotea in Italian. His utter joy at finding something so precious amongst the dirt, the heavy labour, the biting wind and the regular beatings, is hopeful and bittersweet. Just like the unexpectedly beautiful chapel, treasures are often found in the dirt.

‘Up on the hill, the chapel gleams in the sun. I imagine the light pouring in through the window. The pictures on the walls will gleam with life. And, on the ceiling above the altar, a white dove soars through a bright blue sky. How does something so beautiful come from such darkness? The tears are flowing freely now, as I turn back to the people watching me and I force myself to say, ‘Thank you.’

‘‘Up on the hill, the chapel gleams in the sun. I imagine the light pouring in through the window. The pictures on the walls will gleam with life. And, on the ceiling above the altar, a white dove soars through a bright blue sky. How does something so beautiful come from such darkness? The tears are flowing freely now, as I turn back to the people watching me and I force myself to say, ‘Thank you.’Up on the hill, the chapel gleams in the sun. I imagine the light pouring in through the window. The pictures on the walls will gleam with life. And, on the ceiling above the altar, a white dove soars through a bright blue sky. How does something so beautiful come from such darkness? The tears are flowing freely now, as I turn back to the people watching me and I force myself to say, ‘Thank you.’

Dot finds her instant love for Cesare overwhelming, but she never questions or doubts her feelings or his. Con often reminds her what men are capable of, that she can’t trust someone she doesn’t know. Yet, for the first time, Dot places a boundary between herself and her sister, simply saying ‘I am not you’. This isn’t a criticism of her twin, but just an assertion that she is different, separate, and so is her life. She also makes a point of going to work in the infirmary, leaving Dot at the bothy. This is the first time where Con can see Dot moving into a life beyond her, their psychic or spiritual link can never be broken, but to wake up and live without her physical presence must be terrifying.

For Dot freedom means the ability to live a life separate from her sister’s, but also beyond the shadow of Angus McLeod. Dot’s trauma affected both girls and when she couldn’t go out, neither girl did. They have spent every day and night together since. This wasn’t Dot’s trauma, but she stopped living just the same. Now she dreams of sitting in the warmth of Italy, with Cesare and his family eating wonderful food. The image is a mile away from the dark, cold and stormy reality. Con sees the changes in Dot, and recognises she’s drifting away from her. Fiercely protective of her twin, it takes her a while to realise that in Cesare, Dot has found a man who is gentle and won’t hurt her. She knows she can’t hold her back, but it’s a huge wrench, like giving away part of herself when so much has been taken from her already. Watching Con’s realisations about her trauma and the potential for healing was one of the most moving parts of the novel.

The historical detail in the novel is incredible. Caroline Lea writes in her acknowledgments:

‘I wanted the love affair between my characters to be constrained by time and intensified by the precipitous and perilous nature of war, so I took many liberties with timings and action. This was a very conscious decision: I’m painfully aware of the difficulties in fictionalizing real historical events and people and selling them as ‘fact’, especially when this involves taking on the voices of ‘real’ people: I was very certain that I didn’t want to do that.’

This explains her decision to change certain things: some of the history and geography is changed; the construction of the barriers was started by Irish workers; the sinking of a ship by German u-boat features the Royal Elm, not the Royal Oak. Yet the chapel, situated on Lamb Holm, is still standing and can be visited. Even the metal heart truly exists, created by metal worker Giuseppe Palumbi for an Orcadian woman he fell in love with. He had to return home to his wife and family in Italy and left the heart behind. By doing this she has made sure that no one’s real life experiences are encroached upon. This is definitely a work of fiction, although the amount of research and love for her subject is clear to see. The descriptions of the islands are simply stunning and the relentless sea is mercurial; one moment soothing and the next a punishing, vengeful god. The inhabitants of the islands intrigued me too, in the way they slowly integrated with these prisoners of war. Even the two girls, shrouded in grief and superstition, are gently supported by this generous community. Now the chapel is part of this community’s history, with the metal heart at its centre. It shows us that light can shine into the darkest corners and choosing to love, despite the pain and grief, can be the bravest stand we can take.

‘All across Europe, bodies are falling from the sky or into the sea, or are being blown high into the air. Every explosion is a name. Every lost life is carved on someone else’s heart. Every death takes more than a single life. It takes memories and longing and hope. But not the love. The love remains’.

Published by Penguin, 29th April 2021.

Meet The Author

Caroline Lea grew up in Jersey and gained a First in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Warwick, where she now teaches on the Creative Writing degree. Her fiction and poetry have been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, the Fish Short Story Competition and various flash fiction prizes. She currently lives in Warwick with her two young children and is writing her next novel. Her work often explores the pressure of small communities and fractured relationships, as well as the way our history shapes our beliefs and behaviour.

Posted in Personal Purchase

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner.

With crackling suspense, unforgettable characters and searing insight, The Lost Apothecary is a subversive and intoxicating debut novel of secrets, vengeance and the remarkable ways women can save each other despite the barrier of time.

Hidden in the depths of eighteenth-century London, a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. But the apothecary’s fate is jeopardized when her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old, makes a fatal mistake, sparking a string of consequences that echo through the centuries.

Meanwhile in present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, running from her own demons. When she stumbles upon a clue to the unsolved apothecary murders that haunted London two hundred years ago, her life collides with the apothecary’s in a stunning twist of fate―and not everyone will survive.

2021’s Most Highly Anticipated New Books Newsweek
Most Anticipated Books of 2021 Popsugar

Nearing her ten-year anniversary, Caroline stumbles on a secret that changes everything, and is now exploring London alone on a holiday booked to celebrate with her husband. There is an element of numbness in her response, as she reflects on the life she’d expected to have here in the U.K. Caroline is English and had plans to for a post-graduate career, when she met her husband who had a great job, back home in the States. She chose to follow her heart and is reflecting on all she gave up for the relationship, when she stumbles across a man who takes tourists out mudlarking. When she joins them, she finds wandering the shoreline looking for objects in the mud, strangely relaxing. She follows their guide’s advice that she shouldn’t look for an object, but look at patterns in the mud for an absence of something. Not long after she finds her bottle, an apothecary bottle, with a crude etching of a bear.

The object sends us back to the 18th Century and our second narrator, Eliza. Eliza is only twelve years old, but wise beyond her years in some ways. She is working as a lady’s maid, for a mistress whose husband has a wandering eye and even more worrying wandering hands. These don’t just extend to his mistress, but sometimes to Eliza, who wakes up one day having been drugged with no recollection of what has happened to her. Unable to stomach his infidelity, Eliza’s mistress sends her to a mysterious apothecary who resides in Bear Alley. There she will enter the shop front, and as instructed, leave her mistresses’s instructions in a barrel. The apothecary will make up a tincture or poison for the buyer’s purpose and it will be ready to collect the next day. Nella, the mysterious apothecary, creates a poison for the purpose of killing the husband. However, they are at crossed purposes, because Eliza’s mistress intends the poison for their dinner guest, her husband’s lover. The consequences of this mix-up will be life changing, for Eliza and Nella.

This was a brilliant eye-opener to women’s lives in 18th Century London, and an interesting comparison to 21st Century women too. Despite our usual thinking that females lives were quite restricted, here in Nelly and Eliza, we have two women who are acting quite independently. It showed me how we can be mislead in our perceptions of a time period and the people in it, highlighting how important academic research is. We tend to think of the late 18th Century and Regency periods in terms of Jane Austen – all polite, restrained, conversation and bonnets. However, that is only highlighting one class of women and here we see that there were women living on the margins, independent of the marriage market and making their own living. Eliza’s mistress is wholly dependent on her husband, so the fear around his relationship with another woman is not emotional, but financial and based on what others will think. If set aside, she would potentially lose her home, her comfortable living and her place in polite society. Nella lives a poorer life with no status in society, but she’s dependent on no one. Her shop and her trade are hers alone. She’s also a woman focused on helping the sisterhood, her potions and poisons are only sold for the healing or help of women. In fact when she finds out the poison Eliza seeks for her mistress is to harm another woman, she wants to destroy it.

In contrast, we imagine that a 21st Century woman would be in a better position than Eliza’s mistress, but is Caroline truly as independent as Nella? She had dreams and plans for her life, that were set aside when she met her husband because his career was established back in the USA. She then changed continents, leaving behind her dreams, her family and friends. She’s then dependent upon her husband financially and for his social circle, there’s no support network for her and she finally admits to herself that she’s been unhappy in the relationship for some time. When she takes the vial she’s found to Gaynor at the British Library a whole world opens up in front of her. She is enthusiastic, full of life and starts to gain back some agency in her own life. So when her husband unexpectedly arrives to join her, how will she feel about his desire to save their relationship? Caroline has to learn to be her own woman again and relish that sense of independence that Nella loved and protected two hundred years earlier.

I thought the author conveyed both 18th and 21st Century London really well. I could imagine myself there with all the sights and smells she conjured up. I loved the description of the apothecary shop, back in its heyday and as it was when Caroline rediscovered it. That she would find the very book where Nella recorded women who would otherwise be forgotten, was an amazing thought. These were women who wouldn’t be recorded in history largely written by men. When I first studied 18th Century literature I realised how narrow my knowledge of the period was, focussed on battles and adventure rather than the domestic. I remember Moll Flanders being a bawdy, unexpected eye opener of how one woman uses what she can to survive in life. Sometimes, we apply 21st Century standards to women living in an entirely different world and I loved that the author turned that on its head and asked whether we’re any more free? Even if the choices she made to get there were entirely her own, Caroline has still been living in a gilded cage. The ending of Nella and Eliza’s story was unexpected, but showed the strength of female friendship and solidarity. I found myself hoping that Caroline would do the same – to choose an unexpected and unknown future of her own making. This was a brilliant read, historical fiction at its best and an incredible debut from an author I’ll be watching in the future.

Meet The Author


Sarah Penner is the New York Times bestselling author of THE LOST APOTHECARY (Park Row Books/HarperCollins), available now wherever books are sold. THE LOST APOTHECARY will be translated into two dozen languages worldwide. Sarah and her husband live in St. Petersburg, Florida with their miniature dachshund, Zoe. To learn more, visit SarahPenner.com

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Deception of Harriet Fleet by Helen Scarlett.

When I’m looking at the blog tours that are available to me, nothing makes me jump on board quicker than the words ‘atmospheric Victorian chiller’. I can’t get enough of this genre, so I was really looking forward to spending the weekend immersed in this debut novel.

1871. An age of discovery and progress. But for the Wainwright family, residents of the gloomy Teesbank Hall in County Durham the secrets of the past continue to overshadow their lives.

Harriet would not have taken the job of governess in such a remote place unless she wanted to hide from something or someone. Her charge is Eleanor, the daughter of the house, a fiercely bright eighteen-year-old, tortured by demons and feared by relations and staff alike. But it soon becomes apparent that Harriet is not there to teach Eleanor, but rather to monitor her erratic and dangerous behaviour – to spy on her.

Worn down by Eleanor’s unpredictable hostility, Harriet soon finds herself embroiled in Eleanor’s obsession – the Wainwright’s dark, tragic history. As family secrets are unearthed, Harriet’s own begin to haunt her and she becomes convinced that ghosts from the past are determined to reveal her shameful story.

For Harriet, like Eleanor, is plagued by deception and untruths….

This ‘governess sent to brooding gothic mansion’ story is becoming a genre of its own. Having read modern versions of the tale such as Madam and The Turn of the Key recently, it was good to go back to Victorian England and the roots of this tale that has its origins in Turn of the Screw and Jane Eyre. The structure is clever, in that we start in 1849 with a prologue and a narrator that doesn’t introduce themselves. As I read, I started to feel intrigued, but that soon turned into an uneasy feeling that this character was shifty and manipulative. Their narration doesn’t flow, but the scene that follows has impact, even though it is brief. We then jump forward and the author gives us a bit of distance from events – an older Harriet recounting the tale in her old. The parts she relates are pacey and tense, so when I was jerked back to the present, I wanted the next instalment and what came next. All of this creates a novel that is very hard to put down once started and led to a lot of boxes left unpacked in my new house!

The tale Harriet tells moves us to 1871, to Co Durham and the country house Teesbank Hall. Far away from the urban areas and deep into the countryside, it’s remoteness gives us the sense that anything could happen and no one would know – the Victorian equivalent of ‘in space no one can hear you scream’. Added to the sense of isolation and foreboding in the environment we learn that no one has lasted long in the role of governess here. However, we’re not sure that Harriet has many other choices. She’s running from something and that means she may not have been too vigilant about what she’s running towards. She ignores warnings from locals about the house’s macabre history and the isolation, but does feel a little apprehensive as she walks up the drive. What if they aren’t the respectable, ordinary family they have led her to believe they are? Yet, Harriet Caldwell is an assumed name, suggesting that she hasn’t been too free with the truth about her own past.

Her pupil Eleanor, the daughter of the Wainwright family, is incredibly bright, but also obsessed by her own family history. She’s plagued by dark secrets and tragic incidents in their past. Eleanor draws Harriet into their heritage, but is it a heritage she wants any part of, especially when her own secrets are haunting her? Harriet soon finds that Eleanor’s breadth of knowledge is good, perhaps even better than her own, so she doesn’t need a teacher. Her role seems more like that of a guardian or carer, observing Eleanor’s behaviour and being vigilant against the angry, hysterical fits she apparently suffers with.The family would like Harriet to observe and report back to them, and even though she feels like a spy she knows she has no choice, if she wants to stay hidden. The feeling in the house is oppressive, with the parents almost at war with each other and the grief over their tragically murdered son twenty years before still affecting them deeply. In fact, the only welcoming and calm presence seems to be that of their other son Henry.

There are a lot of aspects to the mysteries here, but all of them are hauntings in a way. There are some potentially ghostly goings on, but also the lingering emotions of past events, the fear of something or someone catching up with you and the way secrets, lies and even intense marital discord can leave an impression on a house and it’s inhabitants. As Harriet slowly reveals her reasons for fleeing Norfolk on one hand, she is also uncovering the terrible murder of Samuel Wainwright back in 1849. However, it isn’t just the suppression of these secrets that are highlighted in the novel, its the psychological damage caused when someone can’t be their true self, openly and without judgement. There’s also an element of gaslighting in the denial of certain truths and the frightening ease with which men will declare their wives and other female relatives insane when they become inconvenient or dangerous.

I think the book succeeds beautifully in showing 21st Century readers how powerless women really were in the 19th Century. This thread in the novel reminded me of the Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Another novel where, once used, a woman is consigned to an asylum if she threatens a man’s status or respectability. However, married women like Mrs Wainwright were also stuck, unable to own their own property or have their own money. A husband could have a sympathetic doctor label his wife as insane or hysterical, and sign her away to an asylum without censure. Even the word hysteria has gender implications in that it’s linked to the word for the uterus – hystera – only women can be labelled hysterical. A man is allowed to be angry, upset and even lash out without any judgement or negative connotations relating to his gender. Whereas women are still labelled unstable, unbalanced and insane. This is how the original madwoman ended up in the attic.

I found myself deeply sympathetic towards Eleanor, who is trapped by the house, by the past and by her father. On first meeting her, she seems a little paranoid and distrustful of most of the family. However, as the story develops I started to admire her intelligence and her desire to speak out. I felt she was stifled by her family, and almost imprisoned at the hall, where memories of 1849 still haunt her. This girl will never flourish if she doesn’t get away and I had such hopes for her time in London with her brother Henry. I hoped it would create an escape for her and a chance to meet like-minded, progressive people. There is also a burgeoning friendship developing between Harriet and Eleanor, that’s broken when the trip comes to an end and Eleanor feels Harriet is to blame. It is after this trip, when she is at her most vulnerable, that the past comes back to taunt her and I found myself holding my breath, waiting for the consequences.

This is an absorbing novel, with several mysterious strands to follow and I think readers will be split over the characters and whose story they are most invested in. While I wanted the mystery surrounding Samuel’s murder to come to light, it was the women’s fates that kept me engrossed to the very end. This was an enthralling gothic mystery, with the pace of a modern thriller and strong feminist overtones. It’s a fantastic debut and I can’t wait to see what’s next for this author.

Published Quercus 1st April 2021 Paperback Edition

Helen Scarlett is a writer and English teacher based in the north east of England. Her debut historical novel, The Deception of Harriet Fleet, is a chilling take on nineteenth-century classics such as Jane Eyre seen through modern eyes. It is set in County Durham, close to where Helen lives with her husband and two daughters.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Miniaturist and Meeting Jessie Burton.


Me and Jessie Burton! I never imagined I would meet the author of a book I picked up at my local indie bookshop Lindum Books. They run regular evenings with authors at The Collection in the city of Lincoln – I can’t wait to attend them again in the future. This was a great evening listening to Jessie Burton talk about her exciting debut novel The Miniaturist. Admittedly the book was displayed well, but I picked it up because it looked so intriguing. There was an element of mystery as well as a historical setting, plus a cover with a vintage bird cage and since I have a bird cage tattoo I am attracted to them all the time. I had read the book before the evening and loved it, so I was very eager to hear about how it was written and as a very amateur writer I am always interested in a writer’s inspiration and the writing process.

Jessie’s ability to tell stories means she is immediately engaging and natural with an audience. In her potted biography we learned she had a drama background and that definitely came across in her reading of the novel and during a humorous and lovely question and answer session. Jessie’s inspiration was a beautiful cabinet house in The Riijksmuseum, Amsterdam belonging to Petronella Oortman. The house is made up of 9 rooms that are so ornate and richly furnished that it cost as much as a real house. This fact and the sheer beauty of the piece piqued Jessie’s interest so much that she built her novel around it. Spending only ten days in Amsterdam but doing plenty of reading and researching, writing started using the name of Petronella Oortman but reimagining her as a new young wife entering Amsterdam for the first time. Nella needs to make a good marriage to support her family and marries business man Johannes Brandt who owns an incredible house in the wealthiest district of Amsterdam. However, when Nella arrives she is greeted by an open door and Johannes Brandt’s sharp tongued sister and housekeeper, Marin. Johannes buys Nella a cabinet house, an exact replica of the grand house they live in and its appearance in the novel is based on the one in the Riijksmuseum. Jessie did a reading of an early chapter entitled The Gift where Nella, disturbed by the fact she rarely sees Johannes in the day or at night, explores the house and starts to ask questions of Marin. It is a chapter where we see the beginning of an interesting tension between the two very different women and as Nella explores the house we start to see a major theme of the novel developing too; the conflict between interior and exterior worlds.


The questions began with one about research and how Jessie had gained her expertise in 17th Century Dutch culture. The audience also wanted to know how long the research process had been before she started writing. Jessie did most of her research the old fashioned way, by reading and writing in a piecemeal way (This amateur was pleased to know that writing while researching is ok). She shone some light into the publishing process too, it’s not as simple as getting an agent and then getting a publishing deal. There were 17 edits and 3 different drafts of the whole novel during the process and several different endings including one where every character had a happy outcome that was vetoed by her friends. One of the terms she used was to ‘write out’ something I was very interested in as a writing therapist where I am constantly using exercises to write out emotions and past experiences. She was referring to it as her writing process of working things out as she went along; there was no single moment where she sat down to write and it was all worked out with plot, characters and ending.

Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house.


I learned an enormous amount about the culture the novel was set in and there were some interesting parallels with Lincolnshire. Jessie felt that the people of Amsterdam were in the strange position of having built their own land by draining the area using canals and dykes. This was very pertinent to me because my ancestors on my father’s side were Dutch and came over to implement the same system of land drainage here in Lincolnshire. Jessie talked about the tension between the immense wealth of the city and the people’s Calvinist principles as well as the interesting roles of women in the city who often married later than their European counterparts and worked in business with their husbands. She was also interested in their liberality in that area but their barbarity in others, such as the practice of drowning homosexuals with a millstone round their necks. The African character, Otto, was discussed in his historical context; apparently wealthy merchant’s coats of arms were decorated with black faces as well as buildings in Amsterdam -probably a nod towards the city’s involvement with the slave trade. Otto would never have received the magnanimity he enjoys in the Brandt household anywhere outside. One of the most interesting ideas to me was the exploration of interior and exterior decor and architecture. The grand house has rooms that are lavishly decorated, but they are mainly to the front of the house where they can be seen from the street or where they are seen by visitors. Similarly, Nella’s cabinet house is a condensed version of the home but only contains the best rooms and it takes the miniaturist’s pieces to highlight the similar difference between what the character’s show and what remains hidden. The revelations of these character’s private rooms and their private lives is what makes the novel so compelling.


I still can’t recommend this novel enough. It combines intelligent research and just the type of relationship tensions, secrets and surprises to keep you reading. There will be a certain character that will grab you and Jessie admitted to having a soft spot for Marin who comes across as abrupt and harsh, but does have incredible depths beneath the icy exterior. The miniaturist of the title is a shadowy figure who has more insight into the characters than anyone else but only ever appears in glimpses despite Nella’s efforts to find her. This was intentional and although Jessie was asked whether she was planning to write a sequel there are none at present. Jessie is writing a second novel and is finding that a completely different experience because she has less time and is under more scrutiny since The Miniaturist ended up in an 11 publisher auction and there are rumours of film rights being obtained. The new novel is provisionally titled Belonging and is set across two times; the Spanish Civil War and 1960s London. Even now, years later, I am intrigued by the mystical and spiritual character of the miniaturist who knows all but cannot be seen, and has an ending that’s very much unfinished.

Published by Picador 3rd July 2014.

I have remained a huge fan of Jesse and loved the BBC adaptation of The Miniaturist in 2017. I have also built up a signed collection of her novels The Muse and The Confession and of the children’s book, The Restless Girls. Her novels have been translated into 38 languages, and she is a regular essay writer for newspapers and magazines. The Miniaturist ended up being a Sunday Times number 1 bestseller in both hardback and paperback, and a New York Times bestseller. It sold over a million copies in its first year of publication, and was awarded the Waterstones Book of the Year, and Book of the Year at the National Book Awards. The Muse was also a Sunday Times number 1 bestseller in both hardback and paperback, and has sold more than 500,000 copies. The Confession is Jessie’s third novel, and became an immediate bestseller too.

Visit her website at https://www.jessieburton.com, and follow her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/jessieburton

Posted in Netgalley

The Memory by Judith Barrow.

A common phrase I use in therapy is that ‘no two children have the same parent’ and that phrase kept popping in my head during this novel. This is said because of different circumstances into which each sibling is born. Parents can: be more anxious with a first child, than with younger siblings; or react to a practical change such as a child being ill; or experience post-natal depression; might be going back to work with one child, then stay home with another; be responding to a life event such as a death in the wider family; have different financial circumstances with each child. All of these can change the amount of time, patience, ability to bond that the parent has and affect the relationship between parent and child, as well as the child’s personality going forward.

In this novel we follow dual timelines as Judith Barrow lets the story of a mother/daughter relationship slowly play out. We uncover a singular moment in time that shapes the whole family, especially daughter Irene. We begin in the early 2000s when Irene is caring for her mother who is dying. She is going through all those emotions familiar to the caring role; she’s exhausted and veers between feeling it’s the right thing to do and a deep resentment, that we sense has a root way back in the past. Irene is experiencing a feeling she’s had before, a feeling that her mother has possibly experienced too. The contradictory feeling of hating someone, whilst also loving them fiercely. We go back to 1963 and the birth of Irene’s baby sister Rose. Rose had Down’s Syndrome, and her birth signalled massive changes to Irene’s life, not just in 1963 but for many years to come. As her parent’s fragile marriage truly begins to fall apart, Irene has to turn to her grandmother for support in coping with the dysfunction at home. She feels compelled to protect her little sister from the worst of it and feels an intense love for Rose. Yet, she’s also missing out. Her home life and responsibilities aren’t like other girls of her age and she becomes isolated but for Sam, her friend who eventually becomes her husband. When her father leaves, she is effectively separate from him and despite his weakness, she loves him very much. Her mother is eaten up by resentment and the cares of bringing up two children alone. Then, just as Irene could be making choices about what to do with her life and preparing for her future, her beloved grandmother becomes ill. So, everything that Irene could have dreamed for her life is sacrificed for the care of her family, This made me so angry and I felt deeply for Irene who never gets to fulfil her dreams or shape her own future. Essentially, her own life is sacrificed for the needs of her family.

When our two timelines meet we can see a full picture of what impact Rose’s life and death has had on this family, and particularly her older sister. Rose, Irene and their mother are trapped in a constant whirl of love, care and resentment. Still in the childhood home she can’t leave because she feels her sister’s memory there. At the centre of these feelings is a specific event, but one she doesn’t fully understand because she was a child. The only thing she can do is stay close to the places of her childhood and of her little sister. She’s haunted, but only because she can’t let Rose go. As our narrator, Irene is beautifully constructed – from the sparse and minimal understanding she has of the adult world at eight years old, all the way to a grown woman who doesn’t know who she is without someone to care for. Anyone who has cared for someone long term knows how much it takes from you physically, but also emotionally. You are stripped of your identity until your only reason for being alive is to keep someone else alive. Then, what comes after? How does the carer get themselves back?

It’s not that Irene is without love. No, there has been a lot of love in her life from the love between her and her husband Sam. Her love for her grandmother. Her fiercely protective love for Rose. Will she finally be able to navigate this difficult path and unearth that memory she’s never fully understood? Then, if she does find the truth, will she able to live with its consequences? This is a brilliant study of one woman’s psyche and shows how ordinary lives are often extraordinary.

Meet The Author

Judith Barrow, is originally from Saddleworth, a group of villages on the edge of the Pennines, but has lived in Pembrokeshire, Wales, for over forty years.


She has an MA in Creative Writing with the University of Wales Trinity St David’s College, Carmarthen. BA (Hons) in Literature with the Open University, a Diploma in Drama from Swansea University. She is a Creative Writing tutor for Pembrokeshire County Council and holds private one to one workshops on all genres.

Her next book, The Heart Stone, is due to be published by https://www.honno.co.uk/ in February 2021.