The Dry by Jane Harper (2016)

I’ve reached a point where I don’t look for new contemporary writers of crime fiction. Because there are so many other things I want to read, because I have enough authors I know I can rely on, because I have picked up too many books that haven’t lived up to the promises they made, and because there are many trends in crime fiction that I don’t like at all.

The idea that I might read this book crept up on me, because I saw and heard it praised in many places for the best of reasons, and because it sounded like the kind of book I used to read a lot and suspected I would still like. It broke my defences. I saw a copy in my local bookshop, I picked it up. I liked what I saw, I was intrigued by the possibilities it presented, and so the book came home.

I’m very glad that it did.

Jane Harper is a British born journalist who lives and works in Melbourne, Australia, and she has written a first novel that would be only too credible as the story lying behind a dramatic headline: Luke Hadler has shot his wife and young child, and then turned his gun on himself at their farm near the country town of Kiewarra, some way north-west of Melbourne.

The police from Clyde, the nearest big town believed that was exactly what had happened. Australia was suffering its worst drought for many, many years and the farm, like others in the area, had been struggling financially. The case was closed, but the mother of the dead man refused point blank to believe that her son would have been capable of what the police told her that he had done.

She called her son’s  friend, Aaron Falk, who she knew was a federal police officer working in fraud and financial crime, and she asked him to come to the funeral. Aaron might not have come otherwise. He and Luke had been best friend at high school, but they had only been in touch sporadically since Aaron and his father had been hounded out of the town.

After the funeral, Mrs Hadler explained her concerns and asked him to look into the case for her.

He couldn’t say no, and though he had thought he had just heard a mother’s inability to come to terms with what had happened, when he looked at the evidence available he found that he agreed with her. Then he discovered that newly appointed local sergeant, Greg Raco, felt the same way, and they agreed to work together, unofficially.

They found facts much to suggest that Luke may have not pulled the trigger on his wife and child, or on himself. But how to prove it, and how to uncover the real story?

The telling of this story set in the present day is set against another story set in the past; a story of the events that lead to Aaron and his father leaving the town for that city some twenty years earlier. That was wonderfully effective, and the flow of information was beautifully controlled.  I wondered to what degree the two stories might be linked and I asked questions about the guilt or innocence of Luke Handler and about the reliability of Aaron Falk.

I knew what I wanted to believe; but I wasn’t sure that I could.

The town of Kiewarra was set in open country, it was surrounded by farmland, and yet it felt claustrophobic. Outsiders would always be different, no matter how long they lived there and people were quick to judge but slow to forget. Aaron found one old friend who was pleased to see him, but everyone else he knew from his days in the town wanted him gone, and some of them would go to great lengths to make their point.

The drought had increased tension in the town, and the crime and the stirring of old memories raised it to a point where surely something had to break.

The town, the people who lived there, the things that happened, were all so richly drawn; and it was horribly believable.

The story kept moving, the plot never faltered, and the author missed nothing. She held me in the moment, she held me in the place, and she had a wonderful understanding of what details were important, of what it was important to say.

I couldn’t work out the solution and I was held to the very last page, because the final act wasn’t simply a way of ending the story, it was as much part of the story as what had come before.

I love that this book was as much a story of a community in a particular time and place as crime story; and that it didn’t feel tied to present day crime writing trends, that it could have sat as well alongside the writers I wrote years ago – I’m thinking particularly of P D James and Ruth Rendell – as it would alongside more recently .

I’ve seen comparisons to Tana French, and although I don’t think this book is in that class, I can’t say that they’re wrong.

What I can say is that I have found a new writer to add to my very short list of ‘must read’ contemporary crime novelists.

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall (2016)

This first novel is inspired by the true story of two friends, Kate Gibson and Harriet Parker. They were the daughters of lighthouse keepers, who grew up together, in a small, isolated community on the coast of Australia’s Jervis Bay Territory, late in the 19th century.

Certain facts are public record; the story that underpins those facts is imagined.

I love that this is a story of female friendship, very firmly rooted in a particular time and a place that the author had taken time and trouble to understand. And that it was told in one voice, a voice that always rang true, and that told the story from start to finish, with no shifts in time and no digressions.

The younger of the two girls, Kate, tells her story.

Her world is a small one, and she only really knows the families of the other men who work at the lighthouse with her father. There are a few fishermen who have settled nearby and just about make a living, and there are native people who live a little further away; but there is nobody else. That makes the friendship between the two girls particularly precious.

Kate is bright, bookish, brave, and loves to explore the world around her while she waits to grow up and have the kind of adventures, and see the kind of places, that she has only read about in books. She is eager to explore every bit of the world open to her – cliffs, beaches, grasslands – but her friend lacks her natural agility and confidence, and so she struggles to keep up and occasionally get into difficulties.  Harriet is calm, quiet and much more cautious; and she dreams not of adventure but of a husband, a home and a family of her own.

‘Even though the peppery scent of the scrub on that headland ran through my blood, I knew that there must be other places that would thrill me. And while I hoped that Harriet would be by my side as I ventured off into the great unknown, I knew this was unlikely, Where I had dreams of boats and pirates and coral island adventures, Harriet saw a future of home and hearth …’

The details of their world and their lives are quite beautifully drawn; it is clear that that the author has researched and that she has understood, and she has woven what she learned into the story she in a way that feels completely natural and right. I had a lovely time watching the way the small community worked and all of the domestic details, but, for me, it was when Kate was exploring her world that the story really sang.

I could pick up the sea saltiness in the air, I could feel the breeze; I could see grass and flowers give way to cliffs, and the beach below ; I knew exactly how it felt to move through the world that Kate knew so well.

Although I am on a different coast on the other side of the world it felt so like home, and it brought this painting to mind:

(Amanda Hoskin – View of St Michael’s Mount from the Fields)

A newcomer would unsettle the friendship between the two girls. He was a young fisherman who came closer to the community around the lighthouse then others did. Each girls is drawn to him, but he responds to them and treats them quite differently. Kate is jealous, and Harriet is reluctant to talk.

Then her family sends Harriet  to visit relations in Melbourne, because they want her to meet more people and see other possibilities before she makes any decisions about her future. Kate is thrown into the company of the local boys and younger children, and she misjudges situations and makes mistakes.

Her behaviour is far from laudable, but I recognised her emotions and I understood her actions.

Tension grew, and my head was full of questions about what was happening, what would happen.

There were maybe too many questions, but that was, at least in part, because the facts that this story is spun around are difficult to explain.

I have to say that is a weakness; but I also have to say that all the things she did well in the book – the way she drew me into a world, a community and a story- tell me that Kate Mildenhall will write something quite wonderful when she finds the right story to tell.

I was captivated by this book; and so I’m hoping that one isn’t too far away …

Poum and Alexandre: A Paris Memoir by Catherine de Saint Phalle (2016)

This is a strange and bewitching book: a memoir of Catherine’s Parisian childhood with her unconventional parents, Marie-Antoinette (Poum) and Alexandre

I could never doubt that I was reading the impressions and memories of a real eight-year old girl, and yet there were times when I might have been reading a fairy tale. A tale that was both flooded with light and overcast by dark clouds.

Stories was so important to Poum and Alexandre; they loved the telling of tales, and they drew from those stories to try to make sense of the world, their relationship and their own seemingly troubled history, for themselves and for their daughter.

Consequently, this book is threaded through with references to Greek mythology, the Odyssey, the Magna Carta, the Napoleonic Wars, Rodin and Claudel, the French Resistance …

It sounds a little eccentric – and there are moments when it makes the book a little too dark and dense – but it feels utterly real and utterly right.

Catherine knows that her parents and her upbringing are unusual; and the words she writes about filled with wonder, with love, and completely without judgement.

She knows though that something is not right.

She senses disapproval from her wider family, and those relations are held at arm’s length by her parents. She is told that it impossible for her to attend the local Catholic school, and instead she is taught by two elderly ladies in their apartment.

She doesn’t like it at all, but she bears it stoically.

Poum, is an graceful, elegant woman, warmly when she visits Guerlain on the Champs-Elysees. But she is fragile, she needs care and support. There are days when she clings to her home, close to Napoleon’s tomb, spending hours in bed reading The Odyssey; and there are other days when she vanishes completely.

Alexandre is much older than Poum, and much more stable. He leaves the apartment five days a week to work in a bank; and he disappears completely at the weekend, for reasons that are never explained to Catherine, though that day will come when she understands.

He knew Poum in England when she as a young child, and they came together when their paths crossed again, unexpectedly, in occupied France.

The structure of this book is both a strength and a weakness. The first half belongs to Poum and the second to Alexandre. I loved both, the contrast helped me to understand both, to understand the different things they gave to their daughter, and to understand why their relationship worked so very well for both of them. It was wonderfully effective seeing the same incidents twice from different perspectives, as well as seeing more aspects of Catherine’s life. The drawback was that the contract sometimes made me feel that I was reading two different books about the same subject, that the book as a whole didn’t quite coalesce. And that when I was with one I missed the other.

As a whole the book does work, because I so believed in Poum and Alexandre, and because so much of the writing was so beautiful, and so suffused with a daughter’s love for her parents.

‘I know I appeared into my mother’s existence ten years into her shared life with my father. She thought she was barren, until she found she had a problem adjusting her skirt. ‘Ouch, ouch, I must have gained some weight.’ A friend advised her to go to a doctor. When she finally did she discovered she was sis months pregnant. ‘You were a shock,’ she tells me.”

‘Guerlain is a temple, a religion. The Guerlain mothership is on the Champs-Elysee. Its painted portals and stuccoed ceilings are ripe with Greek goddesses, and the scents of the place are so subtle that they circle you like invisible dolphins and ferry you away to mermaid land where the feminine reigns’

‘I am stunned when I realise that my father had a childhood too. Like Mount Fuji in Hokusai’s painting, he’s always existed, as he is – smoky in the distance, honey-scented up close – but, when it finally dawns on me that once he was as small as I am, his childhood self comes rushing at me from the other end of the telescope.’

‘The stained-glass wondows, little one, create a luminous slope of light. Whatever the time of day, from dawn to dust, the same dim glow is maintained within the church, whether it be bright sunshine or rain. That’s the stained glass windows’ secret. Right now they are sifting the brilliant afternoon glitter in the same way they will sift the pale light of dawn.’

‘In Paris, a population of cleaning ladies lives in a seamlessly close parallel world to that of the city’s other inhabitants. They have chapped hands and heavy legs. Their bearing is a little stately, like people in the thrall of an effort that encompasses too much of their being.’

‘Poum is not an easy mother, either, but when I least expect it, with a glance, with a whiff of her scent as she passes, she pours gold in my cup. Of course, like fairy gold, it doesn’t happen very often or last very long – in a second it’s gone. But something of it stays with me because, as she quotes, my name is ‘written in the palm of her hands.’

‘We are walking through the cobbled streets with nary a space between each mediaeval house or building. The winding progress, the eagle’s nest at the top, the dizzying sea and strand with their large invisible patches of moving sand are as attractive to pilgrims as to children. This is Poum and Alexandre’s lair. They love it here and have come, I soon recognise by their exclamations, many times in the past.’

My father tells me about so many people that I have problems unravelling the living from the dead and the characters in his stories from the real ones he’s met. Our steps are slowing down. The building stand stiffly behind their addresses. I’m sure that if a bomb exploded they wouldn’t budge an inch.’

I loved this memoir for writing like that, for its wonderful mix of reality and charm, and most of all because it was such a fitting and loving tribute to unusual parents.

The Trespasser by Tana French (2016)

Ten years ago, a debut crime novel was published. When I picked it up in the library I was intrigued, and so I brought it home. When I began to read I was captivated by the story, impressed by the quality of the writing, and just how much there was to the book.

It was contemporary police procedural, with a wonderfully real Irish setting; it was a compelling character study, written with real insight and understanding; it was a perceptive state of the nation novel …

That book was ‘Into The Woods’ by Tana French.

It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was so very, very promising.

I had to buy a copy to keep, and I have loved watching the author do that same thing in so many different ways in the books that followed.

There have been six books to date; linked, but not quite in the way series are usually linked. Each book is centered around a member of the Dublin Murder Squad, who has usually appeared in an earlier book before becoming the protagonist of their own story. A story that will usually draw out their own story as well as the part they have to play in the investigation of a crime.

It is as if the author was walking among them, with a perfect understanding who to draw forward and who steer towards the shadows.

This time she makes the simplest of switches and it is wonderfully effective.

29430013The two detectives at the centre of this story are the two who were at the centre of the last story. Then, Steve Moran, who was angling for a place on the murder squad, and Antoinette Conway, who already had her place there, had met and were working together for the first time; now nearly a year has passed and they are professional partners.

Then he was at the centre of the story; now she is. That may sound like a small change – and maybe it was- but it allowed me a much greater understanding of each of them. Antoinette Conway had seemed so cynical, and now I began to understand why. Steve Moran got on with people, he had an easy charm; but I began to think that maybe he sometimes used that, calculating the effect it might have. A different kind of cynicism.

They were left on the fringes of the squad, dealing with the dull routine work. Because Conway had never been accepted, and because Moran had been partnered with her.

The case that fell to them at the end of a shift seemed routine, but they were both pleased to have a case of their own to work.

Aislinn Murray, an attractive young woman, was found dead in her own home on a Saturday night. Her table had been set for a romantic dinner for two, but that dinner would never leave the kitchen. She had been struck in the face and she had fallen and hit her head on the fireplace. There was no sign of forced entry, no sign that she had been taken by surprise. And so it seemed that her dinner guest had killed her – maybe deliberately, maybe accidentally – and fled the scene. All they had to do was find him.

Detective Bresslin, who had been assigned to oversee their work, wanted them to do just that and close the case as quickly as possible, so that they could all get on with other things.

When Conway and Moran they meet Aislinn’s friend Lucy they realise that the case may not be as simple as that, and that there would be much more to Aislinn’s story than anyone had realised. Conway was sure that she had met her before ….

The story follows every detail of what happens, and I was fascinated. I had ideas, but those ideas and my feelings about different characters shifted as new facts came to light. I really wasn’t sure where this was going to go, how the story was going to play out until the very end.

This is a big book for the story it holds, and I can understand why some people wouldn’t like it, but there are many reasons what I did.

Antoinette Conway’s narrative voice is perfectly realised, and she became a very real, very complex woman. She could be infuriating and I couldn’t always agree with the things she said and did; but I understood that she had her reasons and I understood what made her the person she was.

She carried me through the story.

This case changed her, and changed things for her, as is often the way with Tana French’s lead characters.

Every character who passed through this story was well drawn. The dialogue, the settings, the atmosphere – every element in this book worked, and that allowed the story to live and breathe.

I loved the way that themes were repeated through the stories of the detective and the victim. Each of those stories held some improbabilities, but they were credible and they said much about the issue and the choices that young women can face in the world today.

I’m avoiding details, because I don’t want to spoil the story, and because it is so much a whole that it is difficult to pull things out and have them make sense on their own.

The book works so well, as a police procedural and as a human drama; and it says what it has to say about the world very well indeed.

I hope I won’t have to wait too long for the next one.

The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola (2016)

‘The Unseeing’ is fiction spun around historical fact.

Hannah Brown was brutally murdered on the eve of her wedding, in 1937, and parts of her dismembered body were found in different sites around London.  James Greenacre, the man she would have married, was arrested. At first he denied all knowledge of what had happened, but he would change his story. He would claim Hannah’s death had been an accident and that he had paniced and disposed of her body because he knew that suspicion was likely to fall on him,  because he had fallen foul of the law before..

27245142.jpgSarah Gale was tried as an accessory and, after offering no defence, she was convicted. She had a child but no husband, and she had lived with Greenacre as his ‘housekeeper’ until he had taken up with Hannah Brown, who he believed to be alone in the world with independent means.

After Hannah’s disappearance, Sarah returned to Greenacre’s household and was seen to be attempting to pawn Hannah’s belongings, and wearing her clothes.

Greenacre was found guilty and he hanged, but, after a petition for mercy, Sarah Gale’s sentence was commuted to transportation. She and her son were sent to Australia, and no more of her story is known.

Anna Mazzola’s story considers some of the unanswered questions about Sarah Gale.

Why was she granted a petition?

What did she know about the death of Hannah Brown? What did she do?

Why did she offer no defence?

Edmund Fleetwood is a fictional character. He is a young lawyer, and he is delighted to receive a first commission from the Home Secretary. He must investigate whether there are grounds to give Sarah Gale a pardon. Because the evidence against her is circumstantial; because she is the mother of a young child; because Elizabeth Fry has taken up her cause; because she has the support of the general public ….

The lawyer visits James Greenacre before his execution. He speaks with Sarah’s sister, who is looking after her child and is terrible worried. And he visits Sarah herself, who is willing to talk to him but unwilling to answer the questions that he needs answered.  Edmund is inclined to believe her, but the question of whether or not she is telling the truth, of whether the image she presents to him is real or a construct, is always looming. The answer to that question is always in doubt,  and carefully timed revelations made considering that question fascinating.

Anna Mazzola’s writing has many strengths.

Her descriptions are wonderfully vivid, evoking the terrible atmosphere of Newgate prison.  She allows her characters to speak, quite naturally, of the way the law is weighted against women and against the poor. I believed in all of those characters; and in everything that was said and done in that prison.

She constructed a compelling story that worked with the real, historical events. It is a  credible – but rather improbable – account of the crime, and it respects the memories of the real people who lived through these events.

Her characterisation of Sarah is particularly striking, showing a woman struggling with the secrets that she chooses not to share in court; even though she know that she will suffer from the consequences of that decision.

I have to say that the setting up of the story is stronger that its playing out. Because the author gave every character a story, because she was careful to explain everything, I came to feel that there was a little too much going on. Real life is rarely tidied up so well, and that made events seem less real.

The story was strongest when it focused on Sarah Gale. On her life story, on her criminal conviction and on her life in prison.

Edmund Fleetwood was a credible and engaging character, but it was his own story that unbalanced this book for me. I wish that he had been simply the agent of Sarah’s story.

That said, the plotting was very effective.

There were some lulls in the story, but there was always more than enough to hold my interest.

I had to keep turning the pages, and I am very glad that I did.

The Loving Husband by Christobel Kent (2016)

I was very taken with Christobel Kent’s last book, I meant to explore her backlist, but before I could do that a new book appeared and I had to read it.

It’s a psychological thriller, asking questions about how well we really know the people who share our lives, and about what happens when we don’t tell ourselves the truth.

Fran Hall and her husband Nathan lived in a farmhouse on the edge of the Fens with their two children. She used to have a job she loved and a group of friends, but she left all that behind when her new husband wanted to move out of London, so that his children could grow up in the same part of the country that he had. She understood that, but there life in their new home wasn’t what she hoped it might be, and she felt horribly alone when his work took him away from home for log periods of time.

One night, when he is home, Fran is woken by the crying of her baby. When she returns to bed she realises that Nathan is gone, and she senses that something is terribly wrong.  She goes outside to investigate and she stumble over her husband’s body in a nearby field.

She can’t understand – she really has no idea – why anyone would have at reason to kill him.


Over the next few days Fran struggles to cope, but she has to carry on for the sake of her friends and because she has almost nobody to turn to. She realises that she has lost touch with so many people. And she realises that there were many sides to her husband’s life that she knew nothing about; that she hardly knew him at all.

It is clear that the police believe that she has killed her husband. She understood why they might think that, and she found it very difficult that to show that she did not. Circumstances – and people – seemed to be conspiring against her.

The two stories – one belonging to Fran and one belonging to the police – were finely balanced.

Was she reliable or unreliable? Were the police right or wrong? I thought about those questions a great deal, my opinion kept shifting, and it was very late in the day that I made up my mind.

It was clear that Fran had been keeping some secrets of her own. That muddied the waters, but Christobel Kent drew her character and her situation so well that I felt that I really was involved. I had to keep turning the pages. I had to find out what happened.

I loved the atmosphere she created, the cleverness of her plotting, and the way she suggested possibilities as the story moved forward.

That is not to say that this is the perfect ‘domestic thriller’. It isn’t.

I shouldn’t tell you about specifics, but I have to say that there were aspects of the story that were horribly implausible. One of them is fundamental to the resolution of the plot.  I struggled to believe that the relationship between Fran and Nathan had survived as long as it did . I could rationalise it, but I shouldn’t have to.  There is a final chapter that feels tacked on, that I wished wasn’t there.

The arc of the story is interesting though. I loved the twist. I think that maybe I should have worked it out but I didn’t. There was always something that made me want to carry on reading.

I’ve picked up many other books that could be labelled ‘domestic thriller’, but I’ve either found that I’ve not wanted to read them or I’ve given up on them very quickly, because there was nothing that made me want to read beyond finding out what happened.

This book is so much better that that.


Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016)

In this house, for quite a long time now,  Anthony Horowitz has lived in a box labelled ‘A Great Author But Not For Me.’ I might have bought his books as gifts for younger relations, I might have considered his recent sequels if I ever finished reading Conan-Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories, but that was about it. Until I saw this book and I thought it could have been written for me!

It’s not going to be the easiest book to write about without giving too much away, but I have to try.

‘Magpie Murders’ is a wonderful pastiche of a golden age murder mystery, wrapped up in a contemporary mystery. Each one was a wonderfully engaging story and an intriguing puzzle; and the cleverness and originality of the connection between the two  made this book a joy to read.

The book begins in the present day.

Susan Ryeland works as editor for Cloverleaf Books, a small, independent publisher, that has stayed in business because it has one hugely successful author. Alan Conway is the author of the hugely successful  Golden-Age-style series featuring German detective Atticus Pünd.  Susan has never warmed to the author but she has always loved his books, she knows that a proposed BBC television adaptation will be very good for business, and so she is delighted when a new manuscript arrives and she can get to work.

The title of Alan Conway’s new work is ‘Magpie Murders’.

As soon as the situation in the present day has been established, the book turns into the manuscript that Susan has begun to read.3785646

She reads a story set in the 1950s, in the little English village of Saxby-on-Avon. One of the villagers, Mary Blakiston, has been found dead at the bottom of the stairs in Pye Hall, where she worked as a cleaner. It could easily have been an accident, she might have tripped over the cable of the vacuum cleaner at the top of those stairs, but somebody who wanted justice to be seen to be done called in Atticus Pünd has in to investigate.

This is the beginning of a wonderfully engaging mystery. There are a number of suspects, and they all seem to have something to hide or something that don’t want to talk about. There are events in the past to be uncovered and understood. There are a great many clues, many of which may well be read herrings. And there was an intriguing puzzle to be solved.

There were lovely echoes of real  Golden Age mysteries – especially those written by Agatha Christie – and that made this original story feel wonderfully familiar.

I knew it was a manuscript, I could see some things that needed tidying up, and that worked very well, reminding me that I was reading a manuscript but not detracting from the story I was reading.

Such clever writing!

The manuscript ends at the point in the story when Atticus Pünd has announced that he has the solution to the mystery but before he has explained or there has been a grand denouement. The final chapters are missing.

Back in the present day, Susan in perplexed.

When she learns that Alan Conway has died at his country home she realises that the circumstances of his death, believed to be suicide, might just be murder. She knows that she has to find those missing chapters; she wants to know how the story end, and she know that her professional future might depend on it.

As she searches Susan finds striking parallels between the fictional world of Saxby-on-Avon and world of its creator, Alan Conway; and she finds a great deal to help her understand the man himself rather better, and like him even less.

I loved this story too.

It gave me some lovely insights into the world of publishing; it helped me to place one or two points in the manuscript that had felt very familiar, and it was just as engaging and compelling as the story in that manuscript.

I know I’ve mentioned that links and the parallels between the two stories already, but I have to mention them again because they were so well thought out and so lovely to spot.

I spotted some of the clues and some of the red herrings; I suspect that I fell into one or two traps along that way; but I don’t mind at all because I had such a wonderful time watching the story unfold, and thinking how clever and how well executed everything was as the truth was gradually revealed.

There are so many interesting things woven into this book.

The author played fair – the clues were there – and while the story was clever and beautifully engineered it wasn’t that just for the sake of it. Everything was there for a reason, and I always had the sense that the author loved what he was doing and that her had read and loved many of the same books that I had.

If you pushed me I could find a few small niggles – I didn’t find Susan’s personal life 100% convincing; there was an aspect of the denouement of one of the stories that was a little overdone – but in the end that didn’t matter. Both stories were resolved beautifully, and as a whole the book worked wonderfully well.

I’m a little sorry that I’m not able to read more about Atticus Pünd’s past cases.

But two excellent, intertwined mysteries for the price of one really was an excellent deal!

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (2016)

This book caught me by surprise.

I’ve read some of Ann Patchett’s work but it’s been a long time since our last encounter; because I’ve liked what I’ve well enough to want to read more, but not quite well enough for months and years to slip by before a book landed that I thought I really must read.

I expected it to be good, of course I did; but I didn’t expect it to have such depth and yet be so easy to read, and I didn’t expect it to preoccupy my thoughts during the days I spent travelling through its pages.

Because this is a story of families, a story of lives lived, it would be very easy to say too much about people I met in this book who were so very real, and so I am going to spin my thoughts around the four paragraphs that I read before I started to read the book itself.

“One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.”

This is the first chapter, and it is so accomplished. The story is simple, and it could be read quite simply and naturally, but it reveals much. Bert had a conversation at work with someone who thought that he had been invited, but he hadn’t, because he was a newcomer to the area and had barely met Fix Keating. He hadn’t intended to go, but spending Sundays at home with his pregnant wife and their three young children made him feel trapped; and so when he thought of the party he saw a chance of escape and seized it, plucking an unopened bottle of gin from his drinks cabinet as a rather unconventional christening gift as he went.

31204902Fix welcomed him and drew him into the throng. The bottle of gin was warmly received and it changed the tone of the party. Bert relaxed and his delight in the oranges that were being squeezed to mix with his gin – locals took orange trees for granted but they were still a novelty to him – drew him right into the company. It was quite natural for Fix to ask him to look out for his wife, for Bert to respond to Beverley’s beauty, for her to respond to that and accept a kiss ….

The story lived and breathed, it felt to utterly real, and I could see so clearly what happened and why, and what the consequences might be.

It could have been an exceptional short story, but it was just an introduction.

“Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.”

The chapters that followed moved between those four adults and six children. I was struck by how well the author delineated those characters, how well every one of those characters was drawn, how she allowed me to really know each one of them.

28214365It acknowledges how difficult it is to be a parent; and how parents can affect children before, ultimately, they have to take responsibility for their own lives.

 The story swung so naturally between different characters and different times. It was a masterful study of the consequences of divorce and remarriage on the two families is masterful; and I appreciated that it showed that so many things shape lives, that there is chance as well as consequence.

I was struck by how well the characters and their relationships evolved, how the balance between the generations shifted, and that there were no heroes and villains; just complex, fallible human beings.

“When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.”

There are many different moods, many different emotions in the chapters of this book. Because each character has a different position in their family and a different role in events; and so they react differently and make different choices in life. They come together though, to make a coherent whole.

Nothing is quite as striking as the opening chapter, but I was particularly taken with the account of the meeting of Franny – who was wonderfully bookish – with the famous author; and its consequences, some predictable and some not.

This passage captures their relationship perfectly:

“Other than the difference in their ages, and the fact that he had an estranged wife, and had written a novel about her family which in its final form made her want to retch even though she had found it nothing less than thrilling when he was working on it, Franny and Leo were great.”

The existence and the success of that novel brought another dimension to the story; the problems created by the fictionalised family history, the truths that it brings to light, and the differing reactions to having their story retold are fascinating.

I was only sorry that I couldn’t spend a little more time with some of them. The points in their lives that I was allowed to visit gave me a wonderful understanding, but there were life stories that were strands within this novel that could so easily of been centre-pieces.

I’m thinking particularly of Albie, the child who would be born not long after Franny’s christening party ….

“Told with equal measures of humour and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.”

Yes it is.

There were so many incidents and details that have stuck in my mind, and I almost feel that I should be talking them over with someone else who has meet the characters, or maybe even with the characters themselves.

I can’t do that, and so I will simply say that this is a wonderfully engaging human story, and that it held me from the first page to the last.