Published: 4th June 2015
Started reading: December 6
Finished reading: December 12
Trigger warnings: Suicide, drug use
John Venton’s drunken fall from a Devon cliff leaves his family with an embarrassing ghost. His twin children, Morwenna and Corwin, flee in separate directions to take up their adult lives.
Their mother, enraged by years of unhappy marriage, embraces merry widowhood. Only their grandfather finds solace in the crumbling family house, endlessly painting their story onto a large canvas map.
His brightly coloured map, with its tiny pictures of shipwrecks, forgotten houses, saints and devils, is a work of his imagination, a collection of local myths and histories.
But it holds a secret. As the twins are drawn grudgingly back to the house, they discover that their father’s absence is part of the map’s mysterious pull.
This was one of those books that I appreciated rather than enjoyed. It definitely contains some great moments that are full of deep meanings and powerful themes, but on the whole, it falls short on too many of the key aspects that need to come together in order to make an outstanding read.
To begin with, it was a very slow burner and I found it a challenge to stay engaged early on. Indeed, the story only gets going in the second half of the book, where the central mystery is finally established and it suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. The final chapters had me genuinely intrigued, but all of this happens much too late!
The pace was a bit of a problem for me all the way through. The inconsistency of it sometimes took me by surprise! There were times, especially early in the book, where it was exceedingly slow-moving, and others where it just seemed to zoom forward as Morwenna and Corwin unravelled their family mystery.
The most noticeable thing about this book is the writing style. It is very literary and often reads like a 19th century novel. This had its pros and cons. There were a number of meaningful passages dotted around throughout, and it certainly helped add to the atmosphere, providing a sense of escapism.
However, the main issue I had with the writing style was that it was occasionally convoluted and got in the way of the plot. This book actually had a pretty good plot, but it was almost like the writing style was sometimes concealing it. Here is an example:
“Indulging in the sensation of insubstantiality, of transparency, I wandered aimlessly, imagining my real self underground, richly mouldering.”
There were a lot of sentences like this, and although I admire the level of thought that went into these passages, I would have preferred it to be more concise. Like I say, the plot is quite strong and contains several good ideas, but it just feels like a laborious journey for it all to fall into place.
Some powerful themes are touched upon, and it was done with a level of subtlety which I quite liked, even though I thought a couple of issues could have been explored a little bit more. The characters were fascinating and complex; if only some of them were more well-developed.
Morwenna is the narrator. She is not totally likeable, but I was taken by her relationships with the other characters, particularly Corwin. The way they work together and communicate while uncovering the mystery is one of my favourite things about the book.
Overall, I might have loved this book if the story was told a little differently and had not begun so slowly. The plot, the themes, and the characters were all very interesting, but the pace was flawed and the writing style was disengaging and just not really to my taste. It does not quite live up to its marvellous cover!
This book is based both in London, where Julia Rochester currently lives with her husband and children, and in the West Country, where she grew up.
This is her debut novel. Previously, she has worked in radio with the BBC World Service, and set up her own publishing company, Corvo Books.
There was much to admire with this book, but the writing style did not really suit my reading preferences. The plot, the concept, and the atmosphere were all good, but they were not complimented well by the other aspects. That said, I can see why others may like it.
My rating: ⭐⭐