A few months ago, I reviewed two novels about houses with secrets. Here are two more on a similar theme, with a younger couple taking over the home an older woman’s been forced to leave. In the first it’s because she’s dead, but her spectre lingers on; in the second she’s had to move into a retirement home. In both, the young wives become almost obsessed with the previous owner, while their experiences on Valentine’s Day prove a barometer for the state of their marriages.
Mere by Carol Fenlon
Lynn doesn’t want to leave her life in Birmingham, but her husband Dan can’t resist applying for a post at a new university further north. Accustomed to being uprooted with each of his promotions, she’s determined that this time they’ll find a home in the countryside and she’ll take a break from work for a while. Con’s farm comes on the market at just the right time.
While Dan enjoys his enhanced status as head of department, Con, pushed into an indoor job for the first time in his life, turns increasingly to drink. Lynn divides her time between making a vegetable garden, with the assistance of a vulnerable teenager she met on a train, and researching local history for an ancestor who lived in the area generations before.
Both men’s marriages suffer: Con’s through his drinking and Dan’s extramarital affairs. Lynn, always the junior partner in the relationship, has to find the strength to advocate for herself.
The sense of place is beautifully rendered, such that we empathise easily with Con’s psychological disintegration on leaving the land and Lynn’s pleasure in her new home. A prologue establishes the setting as the site of an ancient lake, covering an area of twelve square miles, which, with the rise of agriculture and pumping technology, has all but disappeared. The threat of the water’s return is never far away.
I was rather nonplussed when, after falling in love with the voice of Con’s seventy-something mother, which opens the first chapter, her funeral opens chapter 2. But I needn’t have worried: Alice sticks around right to the end, sharing her impressions of the couple who have taken over her territory and gradually disclosing the secrets of her past. Okay, she’s a ghost, but you don’t have to believe in ghosts to appreciate her, reminiscent of the deceased narrators of Jenn Ashworth’s Fell.
The other characters are also convincingly drawn, the plotting is astute and there are some fine descriptions of landscape and the sometimes-problematic subject of sex. Although it didn’t quite make my favourites, Carol Fenton’s second novel is an impressive achievement and a satisfying read. My copy came courtesy of ThunderPoint Publishing and, knowing first-hand the difficulties for micro-press published authors, I do hope my review helps put the novel into more readers’ hands. In summary, Mere is a well-written and engaging novel about marriage, genealogy and attachment to land.
A Hundred Small Lessons by Ashley Hay
Although generations apart, Elsie and Lucy are not so dissimilar, and Lucy feels the older woman’s presence around the house. Meanwhile, Elsie is left with the memories of an ordinary life as wife and mother, as well as the pain of almost four decades of widowhood and the lack of connection with her daughter, Elaine.
In her forties, Elsie felt blessed with a life she’d always wanted, until the opportunity to sit as an artist’s model both thrilled and unsettled her, opening up ideas beyond her wildest imaginings, and leaving her wondering if she’s ever been properly seen. Lucy likewise has moments when she feels invisible, as she and her husband adapt to parenthood. Although she loves her son and husband, the sense of alternate un-lived lives is never far away.
Then there’s Elsie’s daughter Elaine living the life she believes mother wanted for her, with marriage and a baby when just out of her teens. While Elsie’s and Lucy’s predicaments invite sympathy, I wanted to shake Elaine for harbouring resentment well into her seventies.
Ashley Hay’s third novel is a gentle story of life’s interconnections, misconnections and small disappointments, the role of women and the pleasures and drudgery of motherhood. Thanks to Two Roads for my review copy.