Our Eva by Anna Jacobs

Our Eva JacobsThis saga has been sitting on my To Be Read pile for ages. I picked it up because I’m determined to read more historical fiction, stories about our ancestors and nation-building, having been inspired by tales told to me by my 93-year-old aunt who is writing her memoirs. How do authors bring the past alive? How do they incorporate research without swamping the reader with unnecessary detail? These are the questions on my mind when I read.

Our Eva by Anna Jacobs was first published in 2002, Book 3 in the Kershaw Sisters series, which includes Our Lizzie, Our Polly and Our Mary Ann. The family hails from Lancashire, where Jacobs herself comes from, although when she wrote Our Eva she was living in Mandurah in Western Australia. When I mentioned to Anna on Facebook that I was finally reading one of her novels, she quipped, “Only seventy-four more to go.” She celebrated her 75th publication in May of this year! Surely one of Australia’s most prolific authors – if she counts as Australian. Some of her books do include an Australian setting, I’ve discovered. Coincidently, when I asked a local librarian the other day to help me find any fiction which deals with bounty migrants from England to Australia in the 1840s, one of the strands of my own family background, she recommended Jacobs’ book, The Group Settler’s Wife. I looks like I might have to go on a Jacobs reading binge. It won’t be a hardship.

Our Eva has all the hallmarks of a rattling good yarn, as my elderly aunt might put it. I remember hearing Jacobs speak at a writers conference years ago, giving advice about plotting: “Put your heroine up a tree and throw rocks at her.” Our Eva exemplifies that in every respect. Eva Kershaw is the less-attractive sister among the Kershaw girls, happy to live a quiet life with her guardian Alice at the end of the Great War, with the expectation that she will eventually inherit Alice’s estate and be well-provided for. When Alice is dying, the unexpected arrival back from the war of her estranged and possibly ne’er-do-well nephew Gus puts an idea into her head. Instead of leaving her estate to her unmarried ward unencumbered, she changes her will. You can guess at some of the mayhem that ensues when she dies and Eva discovers her plan.

With a spin on the marriage-of-convenience trope and insights into village life in Lancashire in the 1920s, Our Eva romps over 500 pages. The prose is simple, the characterisation more than two-dimensional, the twists enough to keep the reader turning the pages.

I’m looking forward to my next Anna Jacobs yarn.

~

Author: Anna Jacobs
Title: Our Eva
Publisher: Coronet, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002
ISBN: 0340821329

I’m submitting this book as part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 – even though I’m not sure it qualifies. What do you think?

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Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell

imageIt’s probably not fair to an author to start a book in the week leading up to Christmas, especially when you’re in the middle of moving house. That may explain why Lisa Jewell’s novel, Before I Met You, took me a few days to get into. Once I had a stretch of a few good reading hours, however, I became absorbed.

Before I Met You begins with the story of Betty who, as a child, goes with her mother and step-father to the Channel Island of Guernsey to live with her ageing step-grandmother, Arlette. Arlette lives as a near recluse, occupying a suite of rooms in a crumbling old house perched on a cliff facing the sea. Although she appears to dislike almost everyone, she takes a shine to Betty. She introduces her step-granddaughter to “glamour” and fashion, even though, by all accounts, she has never left Guernsey.

Reaching adulthood in the 1990s, Betty has grown fond of Arlette, even though the old woman is increasingly frail and suffers from dementia. After taking it upon herself to stay on the island to look after Arlette until her death, Betty is rewarded with a small legacy and a mystery: she must look for a girl by the name of “Miss Clara Pickle”, to whom Arlette has left part of her fortune. If Clara cannot be found within a year, the inheritance will be Betty’s. Her last known address is in London’s infamous red light district, Soho.

Eager for adventure and wanting to solve the mystery of the bequest, Betty travels to London and settles in Soho, using almost all of her legacy to rent a tiny studio. Before she can look into the mystery, she must first find a job, and this proves difficult. Eventually, she progresses from flipping burgers at Wendy’s to being the nanny for an estranged celebrity couple. In her spare time, she befriends a DJ who helps her follow clues Arlette has left as to Clara Pickle’s identity. Along the way, Betty discovers that her grandmother, far from being a recluse – albeit with a taste for finery and red satin shoes – once led a totally different life, one of excitement, fashion and glamour.

Running parallel to Betty’s story is the story of Arlette’s youth which is dramatised in interleaving flashbacks. Having come of age in the years following World War One, Arlette, a great beauty, travels from Guernsey to London to live with the family of an old friend of her mother. There, at the beginning of the jazz age of the 1920s, she meets Gideon Worsley, a Bohemian artist from a well-to-do family who insists on painting her portrait. Gideon introduces her to one of the great jazz musicians of the age, a black clarinet player from the Caribbean, whose stage name is “Sandy Beach”. Alongside Gideon and “Sandy”, Arlette – a shop girl, by day – frequents the fashionable night clubs of the era, mingling with the famous people who make up the fashionable pre-Bloomsbury set.

As the novel progresses, the two narrative threads converge and the mystery surrounding Arlette’s will is explained. In a dual climax, Betty and Arlette, their lives separated by a gap of seventy-five years, individually face difficult choices which will set the course for their futures.

Before I met You gives us a glimpse of post-World War One London when women were experiencing new freedoms, both in terms of economic opportunity and of social mobility; it also conveys the constraints facing women of that time. The lasting impression of the story for me, however, is one of sadness, with the realisation of how quickly and easily the lives of one generation may be forgotten by subsequent generations. It makes me wish my father’s mother, a contemporary of Arlette, had recorded her life story. It would fill in so many gaps.

~

Author: Lisa Jewell
Title: Before I Met You
Publisher: Century, Random House Group
Date: 2012

I borrowed a copy from the library.

 

The Winter House by Judith Lennox

imageI’m continuing my binge of books by authors recommended by members of my Facebook group for fans of Nicci French. The group’s readers are an eclectic lot – the recommended authors don’t all write psychological suspense.

This week’s new (for me) author is Judith Lennox whose historical fiction saga, The Winter House, was published in 1996. I haven’t read a historical saga for years. I don’t know why. I used to love them.

The story opens with three friends, Robin, Helen and Maia, who, at the end of the First World War and on the verge of adulthood, vow to celebrate the great milestones of their lives: their first jobs, travelling abroad, losing their virginity. Robin is a pacifist from a progressive family whose two brothers fought in the war, one never returning, the other coming home with shell shock. Helen is the only child and dutiful daughter of the widowed local rector, a man who believes himself a cut above the rural labourers and artisans who inhabit the run-down cottages of their marsh-surrounded village. Maia is the beauty of the trio, a girl brought up to expect the finer things in life only to be abandoned by her profligate father in the worst possible way.

Each girl has a dream. Robin dreams of escaping the academic fate her father has planned for her and moving to London to become involved in activist politics, to do something that makes a difference in the world. Helen dreams of having a home and family. Maia wants the security of wealth that she knew as a child, and is prepared to do what it takes to get it.

As the girls become women and pursue their dreams, each has to make choices and compromises, face hardships which test their endurance – and their friendship. The adolescent vow of celebrating milestones isn’t forgotten, but it becomes representative of the naivety – if not always innocence – of their youthful hopes, as well as the differences in their personalities, upbringing and values.

The story covers the period of the aftermath of the First World War, through the twenties and into the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War, and ends with Europe on the brink of another war. These great events aren’t just a backdrop to the story; they play a significant part in Robin’s and Maia’s lives, while Helen’s eventual questioning of her faith is indicative of a broader wave of secularism that reflects the changing values of this time.

The Winter House is an interesting and engrossing story, easy to read and, in parts, moving. It makes me wonder why I don’t read more historical sagas.

~

Author: Judith Lennox
Title: The Winter House
Publisher: Severn House
Date: 1996
576 pages

I borrowed a copy from the library

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