Top critical review
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on 16 September 2012
Bookish, sensitive schoolgirl Cecilia Bannen becomes infatuated with her tall, floppy-haired English master James Dahl at 'free-thinking' Haye House school in mid-to-late 80's rural Devon. Twist - her mother, Dora, (who teaches music at the school) becomes equally (and implausibly) obsessed with Dahl's wife, frosty, straight-talking, 'dark-eyed' Elisabeth (also a Haye House teacher). Novel cuts between burgeoning 'secret' love affairs of mother and daughter, and present day when Cecilia, now married, a children's novelist ( yawn), and mother of three, returns to draughty, ramshackle, Wind Tor, the house she lived in as a child, to look after Dora, now ill with cancer: inadvertently, she also revisits old passions.
Plenty of ITV-drama-friendly stuff in there already, but just to nail the deal, Briscoe also throws in a 'Lost Baby' plot as well.
Don't bother with the book if you're after anything original - the characters and use of the setting ('this strange, wild place') are all too familiar. The story is one-note since both central characters are dealing with the same emotions. The writing is patchy, including probably the gristliest sentence I've read this year - 'It was all too easy to regress, to become irritated and sulky yet self-sacrificing in Dora's presence, using abnegation as a passive weapon in the face of Dora's intractability.' That'll stick in your teeth alright. Characters continually 'colour' and 'flush', 'stiffen' and 'soften' and 'swallow'; hearts 'speed' and 'plunge'; lips are always being 'pressed together', eyes habitually 'shine with moisture' and there are many sentences that sound poetic but are actually meaningless: 'The raw air caught her breath.' Eh? 'Katya was there...her hair with its green tinge from the water's copper drifting about her small solid body.' You wot? 'His narrowness defined by the blackness of his eyebrows.' Come again? 'She put her arm around Romy's shoulder and swiftly murmured reassurances to her as she ran along the passage to Izzie's room.' Mutually exclusive actions, surely? A character throws leaves at a window to alert someone inside...leaves tend not to go where you throw them and what kind of noise would they make anyway? You can see the book's 'reveal' a mile off and Izzie, Cecilia's adopted, 'indie' daughter shows Briscoe's tin ear for the way young people speak...it's all 'babe' and 'lush' and 'Chill, Mum!'.There's a pointless piece of melodrama involving Ruth, Cecilia's youngest daughter, towards the end of the book.
But there are also good insights into the dangers and terrors of love, the unreasonableness of emotions, the pull of the past, and nice writing about ageing, responsibility and the beauty of wild landscapes.