Mark Castallack inherits Penmarric and marries his father’s mistress. In the late nineteenth century men ruled the world and before too long young, ambitious Castallack is juggling relationships and children with two very different women. Sweet, patient Rose is offset by the older rather steely Jana, who refuses to divorce Mark. Fiercely independent she retreats to her former humble farmhouse, despite the animosity of her stepsons, and Mark sees little alternative but to bring together all of his children – legitimate and illegitimate – to live under one roof. This creates a strained atmosphere where awkward sibling relationships are quickly sullied with dislike and mistrust for years to come.
Penmarric is an epic family saga sprawling across three generations and told from five viewpoints – loosely based on the real lives of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine – and spans from the Victorian era in 1890 to the Second World War in 1945. Its appeal lies in the complexity of those divided family relationships as well as the portrayal of significant notable social changes, times when marriage did not necessarily mean love, times when the class divide was at its most pronounced, times when the expectations and society roles of women were greatly suppressed and limited. Despite the so-called civilised society of the upper classes, the Castallack men and their rivals are deeply flawed and often hypocritical – driven by greed, lust, blackmail, adultery, and ambition. The truth of the human condition is exposed, warts and all. And all of this played out against the cruel beauty of Cornwall in a forever changing England where class, inheritance, producing a son and heir, and honouring ones duty to God and the King formed the backbone of English society. In contrast to this veneer are the farmers and the tin miners, the bar-maids and the struggling working classes, adding another rich seam to the Castallack story.
Although there are many characters – and not many of them especially appealing – they are all clearly defined and the push and pull against each other to further their own goals is skilfully portrayed. I enjoyed how my allegiance swayed with the change of narrator, and the alteration of perspective allowed for a deeper understanding of motivation and mood. Because of the length and structure of this novel it does feel linear rather than heading towards a neat conclusion, but this is not a negative. The quality of the writing, the huge scope of this book saturated with historical detail, and the fast, slightly sensationalist plotting had me fully engrossed for several days.