Book Review: Evergreen Falls by Kimberley Freeman

I started reading Evergreen Falls late one night after finishing another book, foolishly believing I would read a few pages, get a sense of the novel then fall asleep… but KimEvergreen Fallsberely Freeman and her tale of the beautiful Violet and introvert Lauren had other plans that involved late nights and some anti-social behaviour as I simply had to finish this fabulous book.

Evergreen Falls is a dual narrative in that it tells the story of two different women in two different times but in the one place. It opens with a vignette of tragedy in the Blue Mountains, in 1926, setting the scene for what is about to unfold. Fast-forward to current times and we meet Lauren Beck, a 30-year-old woman who, due to heartbreaking family circumstances, has led a sheltered life in Tasmania. When her section of the novel opens, she’s working at a coffee shop in the Blue Mountains, discovering what it’s like to be independent, hold down a job and, much to her delighted surprise, attract the attention of a dashing architect, Tomas, who has come over from Denmark to head up a renovation project on the nearby resort, the hotel, Evergreen Spa.

It’s while exploring parts of the building with Tomas that Lauren happens upon a cache of extraordinarily passionate and candid love letters from someone called SHB to a young woman he so evidently adores and desires. Captivated by the romance and the story behind these, Lauren begins to investigate, all the time aware that love may be slowly blossoming for her.

The reader is then taken back to 1926 and we follow the adventures of the gorgeous and lively Violet Armstrong who, after losing her job in a department store in Sydney is offered work at the very posh Evergreen Spa. With a dependent and ailing mother, Violet leaps at the chance to work in such an exceptional place, but little does she know that her time at the resort will change not only her life, but also that of everyone she encounters that season with tragic and lasting consequences.

The novel then moves back and forth between the two women and the secrets they seek to keep and uncover, drawing parallels between their lives and their differences, exposing their strengths and flaws and how the choices of the past and present will impact upon their futures.

Evergreen Falls is such a page-turner. Freeman evokes both eras

beautifully and presents us with such rich and fully-rounded characters. Class and other differences are explored, as are the complexities of families and the bonds that bind us whether we like it or not. Bigotry and assumptions about others – made on the basis of ignorance and fear – are exposed as damaging, but in this novel they also become the lynchpin through which more generous characters facilitate forgiveness, redemption and understanding.

Setting is so important in this book and the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney are wonderfully evoked, in all their haunting misty-blue greenness

replete with majestic gums, soaring rock formations and tumbling waters as well as the views into forever. Having spent a great deal of my childhood in the Blue Mountains (picking blackberries and searching for fairies with my grandmother and swimming in isolated rock pools), I walked the paths and stood once again on the viewing platform gazing towards the horizon and breathing in that crisp, clean air alongside the characters. Evergreen Spa, to me a thinly disguised Hydro Majestic Hotel, was also a place I inhabited as I read. I sat in the dining room, felt the plush carpet beneath my feet, saw the staff in their uniforms and respected the wishes of the indomitable but kind Miss Zander. The hotel (and mountains) is as much a character as any person and it’s fitting that the novel moves from the period in which it was at its peak to the start of its restoration.

For that is what the novel is also about – restoration – not

always in ways that are anticipated or expected but for the main characters this is what is offered and it’s up to them how and with whom they find it.

This was a simply wonderful novel that kept me up for a couple of nights, meant I was lousy company during the day, and that I was completely distracted until I reached the end… then, of course, as with any great book, I was bereft I’d finished. I shed a few tears, which is testimony to the way in which I was caught up in the emotional lives of the characters.

This is fabulous escapism, and I cannot recommend it enough. For those who love mystery, romance, history, and the tangled web of relationships, as well as some fantastic story-telling, this is the book for you.

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Book Review: Currawong Manor by Josephine Pennicott

In this atmospheric and historically detailed tale set in the Blue Mountains, Josephine Pennicott tells the story of Elizabeth Thorrington, a renown photographer, who’s inviCurrawong Manorted to the home her famous grandfather, the artist, Rupert Partridge, Currawong Manor, in order to photograph the house and some of the people that used to live there for a new book that’s been commissioned. This book is set to celebrate the life and talents of Rupert. But Currawong Manor is a place of secrets and regrets, of lies and deceptions, of long-held suspicions and is the place where a great tragedy happened many years earlier. A tragedy for which no satisfactory explanation has ever been provided… until perhaps now…

Knowing her family’s tortured history, Elizabeth is a rather sad and quite prickly young woman, who has her own skeletons in the closet. Introduced to the current residents as well as one of her grandfather’s muses, the still vibrant and sassy Ginger, Elizabeth is keen to commence the project for which she’s been commissioned and delighted to be working with one of her grandfather’s “Flowers” as the young women were known back then.

Back in the 1940s, Ginger was one of three young women who lived with her grandfather, his wife, Doris and their lovely young daughter Shalimar, and posed for his many paintings. Whispered about, the source of much gossip and speculation as well as desire, regarded as a “fallen woman”, Ginger has risen above her origins as a “Surrey Hill rat” to become celebrated in her own right. Aware of the debt she owes Rupert and his legacy, grateful for the chance he once gave her, Ginger has agreed to be interviewed and photographed, but that doesn’t mean she has to like it.

Elizabeth also meets the former musician and journalist, Nick, who has made a living writing “true crime” stories and who has been hired to write the prose that will accompany Elizabeth’s photographs for the new book.

Curious about what happened back in the 1940s when so many lives were cruelly cut short, and determined to uncover the truth, Elizabeth quickly realises that Ginger and another resident at the Manor, Dolly, know more than they are prepared to tell.

Determined to get the heart of the matter, to clear her grandfather’s reputation and find out what really happened all those years ago, Elizabeth not only has to confront her family’s past, but the toll that years of secrets and dissembling has taken upon her and those she loves most.

Dark, the story unfolds languidly, moving the reader backwards in time before returning to the present, weaving a tapestry of mood and affect. Different points of view dominate, but mainly Elizabeth and Ginger’s and it’s through these two women that the reader, like those who study the challenging works of art and photographs that pepper the narrative, telling their own story, comes to understand the truth. We have to look closely, delve deeper, read the imagery and the meanings that accrue around people, their actions and the objects they hold dear in order to uncover the secrets. Just as Rupert used symbols to expose the brutality and callousness of war and the human wreckage it leaves behind, so too, Pennicott uses the architecture of the house and the magnificent grounds with its abundant flora as well as the haunting and dangerous Owlbone Woods (which is a character in itself), to hint at what’s to come, at what lies below the surface.

The settings are richly and beautifully drawn. You can smell the flowers, feel the cold press of the snow or the dewy warmth of a humid summer. Likewise, as the mystery unravels, you can feel the whispers of the past and the weight of guilt that hangs upon those who carry their secrets, determined to protect themselves and others. Like the birds that occasionally darken the eaves of the house, doom walks through the pages and reading Currawong Manor becomes a visceral experience – at once exciting and dramatic.

A Gothic treat for lovers of mystery, family dramas, history and suspense.

 

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