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 4 (2021): The Binding

Emmett Farmer hasn’t been feeling too well. What he doesn’t know is that he has been suffering from bookbinder’s fever. When Seredith, an elderly bookbinder who lives alone out on the marshes, chooses Emmett to be her apprentice, the truth about his calling is revealed.

If you want to forget, the binder will take your memory and encase it forever in the pages of a book. Seredith’s shelves are full of carefully stored volumes, beautifully crafted books which bind the memories of those who seek her help. Emmett is settling down to his new life when Seredith dies unexpectedly and his term of apprenticeship has to continue with her son, Mr de Havilland. Emmett hasn’t been at de Havilland’s workshop for long before he is sent to bind his first customer, a maid at the house of a Mr Darnay. The young apprentice is reluctant, as Mr Darnay’s son, Lucian, had once been a visitor at Seredith’s bindery, an encounter which left Emmett feeling inexplicably afraid.

This brings the reader to the end of the first of three parts of the book. Slowly, slowly, the book begins to turn on its axis, so that the fulcrum of the story becomes something totally different. The focus changes from the process of the binding, to the memories it captures. About how the process can be abused, the effects it might have. I was totally enthralled. This was one of those books which I inhabited until it ended. The characters are carefully drawn, the author has a captivating sense of place. She also has an authentic way of describing an often chaotic and distressed state of mind.

Sometimes the pain of grief and despair can feel too much to bear. So what if there was a way to make it all disappear, so you had no recollection of what happened, or of the pain? It sounds very tempting. But a binding isn’t selective, you can’t choose to keep just the happy memories, the good times – you lose the good along with the bad. Would I rather keep the pain and all the memories, or lose the whole lot? And what if someone else could read my binding, or I could read theirs?

I know ‘The Binding‘ is a story, but ever since I read the book, this whole concept has sparked many an internal debate and several real-time conversations. Any book which provokes that kind of reaction has to be worth a read, surely?! I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Book No 13 (2018) : Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

eleanor oliphantEleanor Oliphant is, by all accounts, a bit of a misfit. She doesn’t conform to the social norms her colleagues expect, often speaking her mind seemingly without considering the effect her unbridled honesty might have. Eleanor doesn’t really join in, spending every weekend alone, comforted only by a couple of bottles of vodka which she buys from her local corner shop. Sometimes when she speaks, her voice is croaky because it is so long since she last had a conversation with anyone. If her phone rings, it makes her jump.

But she’s certainly not daft. Eleanor has a university degree in Classics, can finish the crossword in the ‘Telegraph’, has held down a job for 9 years, watches BBC4 documentaries and reads books.

Life is plodding along uneventfully for Eleanor until a series of events come together to make her start to question, well, whether she is completely fine. The reader of course, knows this dysfunctional young woman is far from fine. Very early on we sense the undercurrents in Eleanor’s life – her tense relationship with ‘Mummy’ to whom she only speaks once a week by phone, the involvement of social care professionals, scars on her face. A traumatic past is hinted at. Eleanor has secrets to hide.

To start with I was intrigued and amused by this book, as Eleanor’s odd naivety provides an ideal opportunity for comedy. But I began to feel more and more uncomfortable when I realised that very often Eleanor was the butt of the jokes; I wasn’t laughing near her, I was laughing at her.

My unease began to grow as the inconsistencies in Eleanor’s character and behaviour began to emerge: even though she is widely in touch with the world via papers, magazines and TV, she speaks in an oddly stilted way which is totally at odds with someone highly educated. Eleanor orders a Magners and continues to refer to it as ‘Magners drink’, despite the fact that the label clearly says ‘Irish Cider’. She doesn’t know what a laptop is called and refers to dancing as ‘freeform jigging’. Eleanor just didn’t make sense, I couldn’t reconcile these inconsistencies in the author’s development of her character, and I got crosser and crosser. Although I finished the book, I felt it was over-long, contrived and based upon a highly improbable central character.

Eleanor Oliphant is due to appear as a film, produced by Reese Witherspoon. Maybe a cinematic interpretation of the book will be less reliant upon the finer details, and so more forgiving of its failings. But as far is the book is concerned, I am at odds (again) with the Sunday Times, Costa Book Awards, BBC R4’s ‘Book at Bedtime’ and a whole host of other enthusiastic admirers. ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine‘ feels like a lost opportunity to examine the plight of the lonely in our society.