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 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 3 (2016) : The Visitors

The VisitorsWhen I was a child, I was fascinated by the life of Helen Keller, an American deafblind woman whose world was transformed by the patience and techniques of her teacher and companion, Anne Sullivan. Sullivan literally unlocked Helen’s world, enabling her pupil to flourish: Keller was the first deafblind person to achieve a BA and she went on to become a renowned author. It is an amazing story.

Rebecca Mascull’s ‘The Visitors‘ deals with a similar theme, as Adeliza (Liza) Golding is trapped in a world of blackness and silence. She can see something, but the vague apparitions seem somehow unrelated to Liza’s daily struggles. Her life changes when her father engages Lottie, a hop-picker, to help draw his daughter out of her lonely world. Using simple sign language initially, Lottie gives Liza the tools to communicate.

What is particularly clever about Mascull’s writing is the way in which the construct and complexity of the narrative develop in line with Liza’s gradual acquisition of  language. The reader goes with her on a journey into an ever-expanding world, leading Liza eventually to the Boer War. Her evolution from a frustrated, lonely young child into a self-assured but, more importantly, equal young woman, is an inspiring read.

Song of the Sea Maid‘ by the same author was one of my favourite books of last year. I was impressed by the strong female characters, the historical detail and unusual plot and it was the same with ‘The Visitors‘. This novel actually has some roots in Mascull’s own family background. I don’t think Becca Mascull gets the exposure she deserves – I rate her alongside Tracy Chevalier and Geraldine Brooks. Certainly worth a try if you like your historical fiction with a twist!

Book No 40 (2015) : Valentine Grey

valentine greyWe caught sight of Sandi Toksvig once, sitting under a tree at Simon and Garfunkel’s Hyde Park concert 10 years ago.  British reserve and politesse prevented me from disturbing her peace, although I have long been an admirer of her considerable talent and versatility as a journalist, writer, presenter and, more recently co-founder of the extremely important Women’s Equality Party. She has written several books and ‘Valentine Grey‘ is a work of historical fiction.

Valentine has spent her childhood as a free spirit in Assam, raised by her father and allowed to ride horses, shoot and run barefoot. All rather unseemly for a young woman and in 1897, when Valentine is aged 15, her father is persuaded that she should be sent to England. Once there, she struggles with the constraints of not only her clothes and shoes, but the restrictions of London society. Relief arrives in the form of her cousin, Reggie, a spirited young man who embarks upon a homosexual affair with a beautiful, flamboyant theatre performer. Valentine, Reggie and Frank are enjoying life, until Reg’s father signs him up to defend the British Empire in South Africa. Unwilling to leave Frank and totally unsuited to a soldier’s life, Reggie is looking for a way out. And so, disguised as a man, Valentine takes Reggie’s place. Embarking upon the adventure of her life, Valentine faces the horrors of war, but forms enduring relationships with the men of her Mess.

Judging by the extensive bibliography, the author undertook a huge amount of research into Victorian life and attitudes, together with the facts of the Boer War. The result is an utterly convincing novel, with the feisty Valentine at its heart. It examines the prevailing attitudes towards women and gays, views which Valentine herself seeks to influence and change.

I was enthralled by this book and read it in one sitting. It made me laugh and cry in equal measure. It also has one of the best closing paragraphs I have ever come across in a book.