“The Widow’s Confession” by Sophia Tobin – review

It feels like ages since I posted a book review so I’m really pleased to be back with the second novel from Sophia Tobin whose debut, “The Silversmith’s Wife”, I very much enjoyed.  I’ve been particularly keen to read this one since it’s set in a part of Kent not far from where I live and with which I’m familiar having visited many times over the years; it’s not often you get to read a novel set in a place you know well and in which you can picture the buildings, streets, landmarks and landscapes exactly as they are in reality, and it gives the story a unique and personal flavour.  More than ever, I could imagine that the characters were truly there, walking in the places I’ve walked and seeing the things I’ve seen.  But of course, this is ultimately a gripping and deeply atmospheric tale whether you know the backdrop or not.

The quote on the front cover describes the novel as having “a dash of Wilkie Collins” and I’d definitely concur.  If you’re enticed by a nineteenth century setting, an enigmatic widow, priests with dark secrets and of course the appearance of a few dead bodies then you won’t be disappointed.  The titular widow is Delphine, who turns up in the seaside town of Broadstairs with her cousin Julia after ten years of travelling around Europe.  This lengthy trip is no indulgence, but rather one the pair was forced to make, fleeing their native USA after Delphine – we know not quite how – brought shame to her family through certain choices she made.  After being caught up in the bustle of a London overcrowded with people following the installation of the Great Exhibition, the women are hoping to find a quiet location in which to fade into obscurity, but it is not to be.  They soon become sucked into an unlikely social group, almost all of whom have come to the furthest reaches of Kent in an attempt to escape from their sorrows, hide from their past or to battle their emotional and spiritual demons.  Edmund Steele is escaping an aborted love affair and has come to stay with Theo Hallam, the local clergyman whose unexplained lapses into melancholy hint at some unexpressed inner torment.  Mr Benedict is an artist dragged down, it seems, by the mundanity of everyday life and whose desire for stimulation leads him to conduct himself in a questionable – potentially dangerous – way.  Miss Waring is a somewhat formidable middle-aged woman who’s come to Broadstairs to benefit from the sea air, but her niece Alba who has accompanied her is a strange, disquieting girl who veers between coquettish, manipulative and disarmingly childlike and divides the opinion of the party.  When the first body is found on the beach, the assumption is that a murderer is hiding somewhere within the coastal community.  When the second appears, suspicions begin to turn inwards and what trust there was within this group of outsiders starts to crumble.

There are so many things this novel does well.  I’ve already talked about the sense of place, which is so sharp it’d be almost as vivid to readers who haven’t been there as it is to me.  Then there’s the mystery of the murdered girls, which kept me guessing (and I guessed wrongly a few times) until the finale’s big reveal; I hadn’t worked out who the killer or killers were and I certainly wouldn’t have figured out the motive in a month of Sundays.  For me though, the triumph was the nuanced portrayal of a group of characters whose unlikely companionship, which has essentially been forced upon them by circumstance, is gradually pulled apart.  Under the stress of their proximity to the murders and their individual secrets and past tragedies, the party begins to splinter into factions united in mistrust of others.  Focussing on a tight group of people really allows the author to get under the skin of each and every one, and also creates a claustrophobic feel that’s shared by a growing number of the group as they long to be able to escape yet cannot quite extricate themselves.  She also takes great delight in playing with our perceptions of her creations, teasing us with clues as to their true character, which may or may not be red herrings.  Our opinion of almost everyone shifts back and forth as their stories are unwrapped layer by layer; beneath the gothic intrigue there’s a pertinent truth here, namely that all of us are guilty of making assumptions about others before we’re in full possession of the facts.  The question of who killed the girls found on the shore drives the story forward, but the mystery of who all these characters really are behind their various masks is almost more intriguing, and in many ways of more lasting significance once the tale comes to an end.

Sophia Tobin has cemented herself as one of those authors whose novels I’m pretty sure I’ll keep buying as long as she keeps writing them.  Easy to read yet with a satisfying amount of depth to them, for me they’re the epitome of reading entertainment.   I very much hope there won’t be as long a gap between this review and the next as there has been between many of my scribblings of late; there’s at least one more in the pipeline, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or indeed anything book-related!  Thank you for reading as ever.

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“The Gustav Sonata” by Rose Tremain – review

I’m a frustratingly slow reader, so it’s incredibly rare for me to race through a book in a single day, but that’s exactly what I did with “The Gustav Sonata”.  It’s beautiful, compassionate and has a quiet sadness about it, a sense of stillness punctuated by a few momentous events, and with characters who have become almost embalmed in their regrets, resentments and disappointments.  This is a novel about how easily life can pass you by and how frighteningly easy it is to let love and happiness slip through your fingers.

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The book is divided into three parts (like a sonata according to the author’s afterword, a fact that passed me by I must confess!)  The first starts in 1947 in the Swiss town of Matzlingen when Gustav, the main character, is just five years old.  He lives in a meagre, cramped apartment with his mother Emilie, whom he adores in spite of the fact that she is consistently cold and unaffectionate towards him.  His father Erich is dead and although Gustav doesn’t remember him he does know his father was a hero who performed selfless and courageous deeds during the grim years of the Second World War.  At least that’s what his mother tells him, though she remains vague and somewhat cryptic in her explanations.  Little Gustav’s existence is a lonely one until a new boy arrives at the kindergarten.  Anton is a sensitive soul given to bursts of tears, and an outsider like Gustav.  The sad pair gravitates towards each other and a touching friendship develops, but Gustav’s mother remains strangely disapproving.  Is it simply that the wealth and social standing of Anton’s affluent family shames or embarrasses her?  Or could it be that their Jewish background stirs up painful memories from the veiled years leading up to Erich’s death?  Whatever the reason, Emilie’s discomfort cannot stop the friendship from flourishing; yet as they grow older it becomes clear that one thing certainly isn’t flourishing, and that’s Anton himself.  He is an incredibly gifted pianist, close to being a child prodigy, and his ambitious parents have high hopes for a career as a concert performer.  The problem is, as soon as he gets in front of an audience nerves overtake him and he’s never able to play anywhere near his full potential.  Part one of the novel draws to a close with Gustav going on holiday with Anton’s family following a disastrous piano competition that reduced the poor boy to a state of mental and physical anguish.  They’re only ten years old at this point, but both are already keenly aware just how much they need each other.

Part two jumps back in time to the late 1930s, and now some of the questions that bubbled up during part one begin to be answered.  Tempting though it is, I’m not going to talk about any of the secrets that are uncovered from this moment onwards as I wouldn’t want to rob you of the thrill of enjoying the revelations for yourself.  A novel that started off as intriguing blossoms into something immensely satisfying as we gradually come to understand the characters’ life journeys and have some sympathy with why they’ve become who they are.  As I hinted at the beginning of the review, happiness proves elusive and futures that once took root in the imagination as something bright and hopeful are crushed under the brutal foot of reality.  That’s not to say I came to like all the characters: Emilie in particular I never warmed to, but it didn’t matter.  The most important thing I think was for me as a reader to understand and empathise even if the affection wasn’t there.

The third section takes a drastic leap forwards to the 1990s when Gustav and Anton are middle-aged men still living in Matzlingen.  At first I felt slightly uncomfortable with such an enormous jump in time, a bit cheated perhaps that so much of the main characters’ lives had gone by without explanation of any kind.  However as I read on I found I got over this feeling fairly quickly.  Again I don’t want to give any more elements of the story away, but the sense of sadness in this final part is extremely profound.  In part one we saw the loneliness of a little boy through his own eyes, which was incredibly moving, but now we experience something almost worse: the loneliness of an aging man who’s beginning to realise that so much of his life has been spent in emotional isolation, with no hope of change on the horizon.  I’m really pleased that Rose Tremain chose to end the story in the way she did.  I’d wondered off and on during the book whether things were eventually going to go in the direction I anticipated, and they did, but far from feeling a bit aggrieved that I’d second guessed the author, I felt that Gustav’s life shouldn’t and couldn’t have culminated any other way.

If you’re already a fan of Rose Tremain then you won’t be disappointed by this.  It’s not quite the immersive experience of something like “Music and Silence” (which is still my favourite I think) but it’s gripping and heartwarmingly sad if you can have such a thing!  And as I said at the start, once you’ve picked it up there’s no putting it down again, and that’s the ultimate compliment you can pay to any book.