Thursday 21 April 2022

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

 Cushla and Michael first meet one evening in her family's pub just outside Belfast. Their attraction is instant and mutual, but what do a young, single, Catholic teacher and an older, married, Protestant barrister have in common, especially when British soldiers stand armed on every street, and sectarian violence is erupting all around them?
Meanwhile through a boy in her class, Cushla becomes involved in the welfare of a mixed Protestant/Catholic family. She starts out with the best of intentions, but it seems like everything she does just makes things worse. 

Set in 1970s Belfast, Trespasses is a Romeo and Juliet style tale of two people drawn to each other in defiance of everything that stands in their way. 

Beautiful and shocking at the same time, it's told from Cushla's perspective, and the reader can sense the desire sweeping her off her feet, going against everything she considers sensible, and the doubts that plague her about Michael - does he really feel the same, or is she just another extra-marital affair to him?  

It's both wonderful and heartbreaking. A feeling of imminent tragedy hangs over it all, but even though you instinctively know this love affair is doomed, when the end does come your breath catches. it's the sort of novel I want to push into everyone's hands and say 'read this!'.

An astounding debut from Louise Kennedy, and I can't wait to see what she follows it with

Wednesday 13 April 2022

Shadowlands by Matthew Green

 Under Britain's streets, fields and lakes lies another landscape of forgotten villages and towns; places that for natural, economic or military reasons have been abandoned and left to decay. Maybe too many of the populace died of plague for the village to be viable, maybe the sea came crashing through doors too often, maybe authority in the form of city corporations in need of water or the Ministry of Defence needing training grounds decided their need was greater than that of the inhabitants, but all over the country remains can be found of places that for one reason or another people left; sometimes voluntarily, sometimes being evicted.

In Shadowlands, Matthew Green takes us on a tour of eight of these places from Skara Brae on Orkney, hidden for thousands of years under sand dunes, to Winchelsea on the English Channel, where not one, but two, towns have fallen foul of coastal conditions - the first washed away by violent storms, the second decaying slowly as its harbour silted and traders left.

On the way, he takes the reader to Wharram Percy, left a ghost town after the Black Death and a subsequent change in farming practices, 

Trellech on the Welsh Marches near Chepstow - once a bustling place feeding the English settlers need for iron armaments and accoutrements of war

Dunwich where a Medieval city on the Suffolk cliffs has gradually crumbled into the sea.

St Kilda which had to be abandoned by its inhabitants when its population dropped to unsustainable levels as young people sought a life beyond their inhospitable, isolated island home.

The lost villages of Norfolk taken over during WW2 for military training, and never given back.

And, the most poignant perhaps because it's still remembered by people who grew up there, the valley of Capel Celyn in North Wales, lost to Liverpool's growing need for water.

Part history book, part travelogue, this is both an engaging and informative read, bringing these locations back to life, and placing their growth and decline within a wider context of social change around them. Green also digresses into how previous visitors/generations have responded to these places - from touristy explorers of the Enlightenment looking for noble savages on the islands of St Kilda, to the romantic poets mourning the passing of Dunwich or Winchelsea.

I've always had a curiosity about the past, and forgotten places such as this have a mysterious pull about them - trying to imagine the lives of the people who lived and worked there, their sadness (or perhaps delight) at leaving - more so than the ruins you might find lurking under a shopping mall, so this books was definitely MY kind of thing, and I'd greatly recommend it to anyone with even a mild curiosity about the past.

Tuesday 5 April 2022

Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee

Following from Francesca May's Wild And Wicked Things, we have another story about witchcraft, but of a rather different sort. Wild and Wicked Things is set in an alternative early twentieth century, and its witchcraft is of its time - very glamorous and full of temptation. Cunning Women is set three centuries earlier, when witchcraft was very much believed in, something to be feared and persecuted, and it's far more down to earth in setting and story.

Sarah Haworth and her family have had to leave their home after the death of her father. They now live in an abandoned house outside the village, and scrape together a living selling potions and cures, which has earned them a reputation as 'cunning women' or witches. Sarah's mother is inclined to encourage this label as she feels it gives them protection as the villagers live in fear of the illness and pain witches might cause; Sarah would just rather live a normal life, and is delighted when Daniel, the local farmer's son, becomes attracted to her, and gives her a job at the farm. 
Then, following a series of strange deaths, a new magistrate arrives, and his eye turns towards the 'cunning women'. Public opinion has turned against the Haworth family, with people seeking to settle old wrongs and grudges. Can Sarah manage to protect her family, and save her relationship with Daniel? In a world set against anyone practising witchcraft, where too many innocent women have already died for the offence, it seems unlikely.
In many ways, this is a familiar story - a historical tale of witchcraft, of seventeenth century persecution of anyone suspected of it, of the personal grudges leading to false accusations and deaths - and, although good enough, didn't enthrall me.