Stephen Desmonde is expected to succeed his father as the rector of a rural parish, but Stephen is a sensitive, passionate artist driven by an obsession to discover the beauty in truth. The lack of understanding and subsequent derision from his family results in Stephen leaving for Paris – the hub of all things creative – and then to travel across Spain. He’s a passive character, spurned in love, starved, cheated, forced to take a tough road, and to suffer terribly for believing in his art. Material comforts are sparse but his journey, both artistically, physically, and spiritually, all culminate into a rich and multi-layered experience.
So many great artists are not understood or revered until after their death. Desmonde also falls victim to this stereotype, although arguably some of this down to his pride and lack of interest in material gain. Above all, Stephen Desmonde’s story exposes the flaws of Christian beliefs and the perceived realities of war during the early 20th century. Desmonde and his family are real flesh and blood, as are the many characters who play numerous supporting roles. The depiction of life at Stillwater in England, and of France and Spain are deep and rich without compromising reality.
I was thoroughly engrossed in this book. Cronin is a master of historical detail and perspectives, and manages to extract every ounce of empathy for his protagonist.
Andrew is living the perfect lie: he’s married to Diane and they have two children and a large family home. The innocence of this lie snowballs rapidly after a successful interview with the local council for a job in Death Administration. Bereaved at a young age, Andrew has had more than his fair share of loss. But in truth, family life on any level doesn’t exist for Andrew – he’s something of a nerdy loner, preferring his own company to socialising, and he’d much prefer to forget about his past. His job for the council is both fascinating and sad, and arranging funerals for those who’ve died alone touches a nerve in Andrew and he becomes steadily more concerned about his own fate. When Peggy joins the office her forthright personality draws out something of the man Andrew used to be, and a friendship blossoms. But a team-building exercise based on Come Dine With Me, is poised to blow everything apart and Andrew’s entire life looks set to be exposed – the rundown flat he shares with his model railway, the difficult relationship with his sister and her husband… and what happened to the real Diane.
Dark humour with a strong and original message about family ties. I found this read a slow burn to start but my enjoyment rapidly increased as the novel developed, and I loved the final third. Although there are dark themes – death, loneliness, depression, funerals – the satirical humour bubbles beneath the surface and the narrative remains witty and engaging. The secondary characters are relatable, colourful and interesting, and these subplots compliment the main story and add complex layers. There are numerous sad circumstances throughout, but it is also about the potential of love, truth, and hope, and the light these powers can bring to the darkest of places.
A gentle coming-of-age story and a murder-mystery, set along the coastal region of North Carolina – a vast area of marsh teeming with insects and birdlife. The youngest child of an abusive marriage, Kya finds herself abandoned in the family home, a place which amounts to nothing much more than a primitive shack in the marshlands. She spends her time studying and documenting the wildlife, finding great solace in her environment. Her survival depends on collecting oysters and catching and smoking fish to sell to the local village store, in return for boat fuel and other supplies. She soon meets Tate, and they form a teenage kinship. Although he teaches her to read and their relationship looks set to blossom, Tate moves away to further his education, but breaks his promise to return. Chase, the handsome sporting hero about town wastes no time in pursuing the now mature, beautiful, and elusive Marsh Girl. Kya eventually falls for his superficial charms, until the day Chase reveals his true character and she’s forced to retaliate. Meanwhile, Tate has sourced a publisher interested in Kya’s detailed documentation of the flora and fauna of the marsh. While she’s on a very rare trip out of town meeting her publisher, Chase is discovered dead and the town points its many fingers at the secretive, semi-feral Marsh Girl.
The first half of the book, describing Kya’s early years alone, I found a little tedious and repetitive: I’m not sure I completely swallow the fact that a girl at the tender age of seven finds the wherewithal to live quite as independently as Kya did, and that no one in the town sought to discover the truth about her living conditions and the absence of her family. And the dynamics of the murder reveal and the denouement, didn’t quite work for me. The strength of this novel lies in the lyrical narrative, which is rich in ecology, analogies, and the details of swamp life, all of which are expressed with a deft hand. It’s a unique setting, and the author uses clever comparisons of animal behaviours to add depth of character and explain motivation. I did enjoy the book, I just didn’t love it.
Jim Carver returns home from the front to find his wife passed away and seven children on his hands. His socialist leanings clash with the ambition of his eldest boy who is determined to better his lot since the artful, ruthless Archie has an eye on owning a chain of grocery shops. His eldest daughter mothers his two sets of twins, and daughter Judith, until they also flee the nest.
Mrs Firth’s religious and controlling rod of iron over her husband and children eventually breaks down when her husband discovers the kindness of another woman, and begins an affair. Handsome, gentle creative Esme Fraser is bewitched by the spirited and sensual Elaine Firth, but she rebels against her repressed upbringing and after a boring job in a Welsh seaside town, runs away to join a circus. Esme’s childhood sweetheart, the girl next door, Judith Carver, is heartbroken by his betrayal. And spinster Edith Clegg who looks after her mentally ill sister, finds life much improved when musician Ted Hartnell arrives to lodge with them.
This was right up my street (or avenue). A richly detailed, nostalgic slice of suburban life. The lives of ordinary people, their relationships, their hopes and dreams. Set between the two world wars, this novel covers a period of significant change and makes for an interesting social commentary. It’s a linear story in so much that the structure, like life, is ongoing rather than forming a neat circle with all ends tied in a ribbon. But there is a natural ebb and flow, the acknowledgement of good and bad times, the roots of which evoke a strong sense of realism.
My overriding criticism is the use of similar character names – around 7 or 8 – whose names begin with the letter E. However, I thought the diverse, colourful cast hugely entertaining and well-characterised and I’m pleased to see there is a sequel.
Robert Shannon is orphaned and sent from Ireland to live with his mother’s estranged family in Scotland, where a frugal existence in a dour town looks set to be his world. His maternal great-grandpa becomes an important character in his life despite grandpa’s disdain of Catholicism, and Robert’s paternal great-grandma’s active encouragement of it. Through his childhood amidst the prejudice and fear of religion, and the forming of fierce friendships and future hopes, Grandpa is not only there to advise, but often to rescue. As the years advance this relationship is often turned on its head – much to the exasperation of Robert. But Grandpa has the last say, in a moving and deeply satisfying denouement.
This was an incredibly absorbing, insightful read. A tender coming-of-age novel which highlights the strong oppositions between Catholics and Presbyterians, and how – often with gentle humour – this impacts on young Robert trying to find his way in life and make sense of historical, often puzzling beliefs. But Robert discovers he has a scientific mind, and as he matures his ambition to be a doctor leads him along a difficult and often disappointing path, fraught with obstacles. The depth and variety of character and rural scene-setting, brings this period of Edwardian history to life and makes perfect sense of the title.