Book No 11 (2021) : The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

Over the years I’ve read about, visited, stayed in and photographed lighthouses – they have always fascinated me. Looking back, I think it was the children’s BBC TV programme Blue Peter that sparked my interest: there was a clip about winching Christmas puddings over to the lighthouse keepers. The Blue Peter album that year had a feature about Grace Darling, who saved several survivors from a ship wrecked near the lighthouse where her father was the keeper. I remember reading it again and again.

There is something about the combination of the lighthouses themselves – their construction, longevity, isolation, proximity to the sea (obviously!) which set me off on my own explorations. There’s no way I could have let ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter‘ pass me by.

Based on fact, Hazel Gaynor has written a fictionalised account of the rescue which Grace Darling and her father mounted in September 1838 from the Longstone light. The circumstances surrounding the rescue are well documented as Grace became something of a national heroine once details of the rescue became more widely known. One of the survivors saved from the sea was a young woman called Sarah Dawson. Sadly, Sarah’s two young children drowned.

Interwoven with Grace and Sarah’s history is an entirely imaginary thread, concerning a young woman (Matilda) who is banished from Ireland to America when her family discover she is pregnant – with no prospect of marriage. Matilda is sent to stay with a distant relative, Harriet, who is a lighthouse keeper on Rhode Island. As the time draws near for Matilda’s baby to be born, her relationship with Harriet takes on a new significance. Two family heirlooms, a locket necklace and a manual for light keepers are the clues to an untold story.

I enjoyed this book and not just because of the lighthouse interest! Grace Darling emerges as what we would now call a celebrity and the attention doesn’t sit comfortably with the young heroine. She feels as if her father’s role in the dangerous rescue is underplayed in the light of her own bravery, but they had worked as a team. Furthermore, everyone wants a piece of her – quite literally. As well as boatloads of gawpers chartering boats to try and catch a glimpse of Grace at Longstone, correspondents also write requesting locks of her hair and scraps of her clothing. She has her portrait painted several times and is tempted by a dubious offer from a circus owner. I was drawn in by the notion that Grace Darling was famous for a reason, rather than looking a certain way or having an astute marketing team. She deserves recognition for her heroism, but the balance between the public’s admiration and infatuation, is a fine one.

Hazel Gaynor has clearly researched her subject matter very carefully and cites many of her sources and reference works in the author’s notes. However, the facts of history are balanced by Matilda’s fictional narrative which is also engaging and enjoyable. There is a touch of mystery and some romance; next time I’m at a lighthouse, I’m sure there will be scenes from this novel which will be realised, just as I imagined them. I just hope it isn’t the part where I’m single-handedly steadying a small boat in the middle of a storm!

Book No 10 (2021) : Anatomy of a Scandal

Sarah Vaughan’s novel has been hugely successful. As well as having been selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club in 2018, it has recently been added to that Club’s list of their favourite, stand-out titles from the past decade. Which all makes me think that anything I might have to say will be largely irrelevant, as the reading jury has already delivered its positive verdict on this one! Nevertheless, I’ll give you my twopenn’orth.

The plot of the novel (classed by Richard & Judy as ‘literary fiction‘ #debatable) centres upon a prosecution for rape brought against a politician (James Whithouse) by an aide with whom he was having an affair. The case is prosecuted by a female barrister, Kate; it transpires that she has a particular reason for wanting to see this perpetrator brought to justice.

Switching between the viewpoints of Kate, James and his wife (Sophie), and a University contemporary of the couple (Holly), the story is set between the University of Oxford in the early 1990s and the London setting of Westminster and the courts in 2017. Although this may sound complex, it works reasonably well as a literary device and the plot is easy to follow. I managed to read the book in a day.

For most of the day that I spent reading though, I wanted to fling the ‘Sunday Times‘ best-selling, 4-pages of plaudits, Simon & Schuster novel at the wall. If it hadn’t have been the monthly choice for our own village book group, I would have given up.

Firstly, the plot is paper-thin. If it was a hotel wall, you’d be able to hear your neighbour clipping their toenails. It is also predictable, and not in a dramatically ironic way, more in a ‘I saw that coming a mile off” way. Kate has a back-story which is barely disguised and the reveal is under-whelming.

Even more frustrating though, were the clumsy stereo-types, especially of Oxford students: the provincial, dull, hard-working state school pupil who is over-awed by the public-school types. Contrast her with the posh bird – beautiful, sporty, wealthy and only at Oxford to find a husband. The male counterparts are the posh boys – floppy haired members of exclusive drinking clubs, drug-taking champagne quaffers who are dismissive of their sexual flings with women. This may have been the Oxford of Sarah Vaughan’s youth, but I felt she does the University a huge disservice. Oxford today works hard to dispel these out-dated stereotypes, which threaten to make an Oxbridge place feel unattainable for less privileged and state school pupils. Interestingly, most of us in the book group discussion had come to the same conclusion – many of us have first-hand experience of the modern University of Oxford and were disappointed by the cliches.

The number of rape convictions in England and Wales has fallen to a record low but sadly the treatment of the issue in this novel was disappointing, with the prosecuting lawyer driven by a personal vendetta, rather than striving for a conviction to deliver justice for the victim.

I realise that my last few reviews I’ve been a bit Marmite about books – I other seem to love ’em or hate ’em. But this one is definitely toast!

Book No 9 (2021) : One August Night

This is the sequel to Victoria Hislop’s highly successful novel ‘The Island‘, which chronicles the experiences of a young woman sent to Spinalonga, the leper colony off the coast of Crete. I like this novel, although not without reservations – I read it for a second time in 2018.

One August Night‘ is supposedly the story of what happens after a cure for leprosy is discovered and the residents of Spinalonga return to their island communities. Two key characters in ‘The Island‘ are sisters Anna and Maria; Maria had contracted leprosy and been exiled to Spinalonga. Anna, meanwhile, engages in a passionate extra-marital affair with Manoli and gives birth to a daughter, Sofia.

During the island celebrations for the return of its villagers from Spinalonga, Anna is murdered. Someone is convicted of the crime and jailed, whilst her lover takes off to start a new life. I hoped that the novel would pick up Maria’s story and address how she adapts to life after Spinalonga, but instead it spins along-a (see what I did there?!) different storyline.

This whole book feels like a wasted opportunity. Having invested a considerable amount into the development of Maria’s character and circumstances in ‘The Island‘, there was a rich seam of material to be mined in a sequel. Instead, leprosy and its consequences are virtually ignored in favour of a bizarre exploration of Manoli’s new life and Maria’s prison visits to the murderer. The plot is weak, disjointed and uninteresting, as are the majority of the characters. There was very little to hold my interest and I struggled to finish the novel at all. I can’t help thinking that if this had been a submission to an agent from an unknown new author, it would have either gone in the ‘Reject’ pile or been published after several major edits. As it is, Victoria Hislop has seen another bestseller hit the shelves.

For me, Ms Hislop was drinking in the last chance saloon and I’m afraid she’s blown it. Nothing she has written since ‘The Island‘ has equalled it, despite my fervent hoping. Having read every single thing she’s produced afterwards, desperately looking for the same emotional connection I felt with Alexis, Eleni and Maria initially, nothing has been as good. I was very excited when a friend lent me ‘One August Night‘. When I’d finished, I was even more glad. Because if I’d wasted £12.99 of my own money on a copy, I’d have been gutted.

Book No 8 (2021) : Beastings

The plot is simple: a young workhouse girl, having been found a job as a servant, absconds when she discovers the father of the household physically abusing his baby. The girl takes the child with her and runs – there is no real plan, nowhere to run to. She just has to get away. It isn’t long before she is missed and the local priest, assisted by an able poacher, sets off on her trail. The novel follows the girl (we never know her name, nor the that of the baby – whose sex is never even revealed) as she flees, trying to survive in the wild, becoming increasingly exhausted and malnourished.

The runaway is shown some kindness by strangers, but only temporarily before she moves on again. The portrayal of nature and the landscape is harsh and so are the people. The Priest is an ugly character, immoral and hypocritical; as the novel progresses, his reason for wanting to run the girl to ground becomes apparent. When they finally encounter one another the conflict is brutal and terrifying.

Reading this felt like all my bad dreams – running, running, always scared and looking behind. Finding a place to rest for a while before having to be on my feet again. Blisters, hunger, a crying baby, rain, dark. The relief of water, a wash, a drink. Then scrambling again, the danger always just out of sight on the periphery of your consciousness, but you have to keep moving to get away from it. A nightmare.

When I was at studying literature at University, I think my critical analysis skills were probably at their height. About 30 years ago! Nowadays I read for pleasure and entertainment, not to pass exams and so, after years of laying unused, my critical skills have diminished. I missed them whilst reading Benjamin Myers’ ‘Beastings‘. The text is rich in imagery, punctuation during dialogue is non-existent and scarce in many places, adding to the pace of the narrative. I felt I could have got more to the heart of it, as if true insight was evading me.

I’m not sure this is a book I can say I enjoyed – admire, certainly, this is powerful and arresting writing. A Portico Literary prize winner, it would almost certainly provoke a lot of discussion as a book group choice. Nevertheless, it has made a lasting impression: all I kept thinking about was people for whom terror, running, hiding is a permanent state – refugees, the homeless, conscripted child soldiers, trafficked slaves, illegal immigrants….. how terrifying it must be to never be able to relax, rest, breathe, for fear of being caught.