Before I review this wonderful book, I have to explain why I’ve not been reviewing lately and why there are periods where I go “quiet” even though I still read up to four books a week (not all of which I review). The reason is simple – it’s usually because I am busy with my own work. Last month and for a great part of July too, I was caught up doing the copy edit of my next novel, The Chocolate Maker’s Wife (out March 2019) and I also put my head down and made a decent start to the one after that, a novel that has a working title of The Sea Witch of Caledonia (though that will change as it’s felt it has too much a fantasy feel when it’s very much entrenched in history – it’s actually loosely based on a terrible true story). It’s set in Scotland in the early 1700s, so I immersed myself for a over a year in Scottish history *sigh* and was fortunate enough to travel there too though, sadly perhaps, not back in time. So, that is why my reviews have fallen away. I feel terrible about that. Hopefully, I can make up for it this month, though that will depend on how much I write of my own work! Anyhow, thank you for reading my reviews. There are so many marvellous writers and books out there and it’s such a privilege to be able to read and review them and pay tribute to the power of authors’ words and hearts. They nourish my imagination in so many ways and I am very grateful. Now, to Susanna Kearsley’s latest:
This is a beautiful, unctuous book that follows two storylines – that of an amateur cryptographer, Sara Thomas in the present and the life of Mary Dundas, an English/French woman living in France in the early 1700s.
Tasked with deciphering the journals left my Mary, Sara is employed by a famous historian and travels to France, staying in a delightful cottage with two women, one of whom, Denise, has a young son and her very handsome and distracting ex-husband as a neighbour.
As Sara starts to decipher Mary’s journals, the narrative shifts to the past and the reader is introduced to a young woman not only embroiled in Jacobite plots, but a lonely soul keen to find a sense of belonging. Asked to accompany a Scotsman escaping English justice to Paris, Mary is thrown onto the company of one Hugh MacPherson, a gruff, mysterious man who avoids company and conversation and appears to have no time for women.
Mary is a story-teller par excellence and in her notes, she weaves a series of wonderful fairy tales that in themselves are rich with analogies to her present and the politics and dangers of the day, including those she increasingly faces.
But as Sara uncovers more of Mary’s journey, observing the changes in the young woman and the company she keeps and avoids, she finds she’s undertaking a personal journey of her own, one that poses its own dangers to her peace of mind and to her heart.
While this novel is a bit slow to start, the writing is wonderful and the characters really well-drawn. Sara has Aspergers and the way in which this is depicted is accurate, insightful and thoughtful – just like Sara. Likewise, when we first meet Mary, we are carefully introduced to her and her fractured family life, and so able to understand the decisions she makes and the personal growth she undergoes and which matches the stages in her grand adventure. She is a brave and bold soul with a rich imagination, but also possesses an integrity that shines. In fact, both the leading female characters are strong, interesting women with big hearts and a deep capacity for empathy.
Their stories are parallel in many ways and yet also very different. It’s testimony to Kearsley that though she draws on real characters and events to paint such a vivid picture of history – both time and place – we also invest heavily in the folk both real and imagined. The romances that underpin this book are heart-aching and quite lovely.
I also loved that characters from her earlier books made cameos – that was cleverly done. This is a really lovely story that while it isn’t a rollicking adventure or a time-slip romance, it is a slow-burning narrative with wonderful peaks and troughs that takes the reader on their own voyage. The author’s note at the end is fascinating as well and reveals the level of research Kearsley puts into her books but which never interfere with her ability to tell a damn fine story.