Monday, 5 October 2015

Emma's Guest Review: Kathryn Hughes - The Letter

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

Tina Craig longs to escape her violent husband. She works all the hours God sends to save up enough money to leave him, also volunteering in a charity shop to avoid her unhappy home. Whilst going through the pockets of a second-hand suit, she comes across an old letter, the envelope firmly sealed and unfranked. Tina opens the letter and reads it - a decision that will alter the course of her life for ever...

Billy Stirling knows he has been a fool, but hopes he can put things right. On 4th September 1939 he sits down to write the letter he hopes will change his future. It does - in more ways than he can ever imagine...

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The Letter by Kathryn Hughes opens with a question that instantly sparked my interest. A young girl is in a garden asking her grandmother – how did you and grandpa meet? So begins a tale where we step back in time to uncover the story of both Chrissie and Tina separated by many years yet connected through a sealed letter found by chance. This discovery may lead to the unravelling of years of hurt, pain and confusion that caused so much upheaval and loss for all involved. 

This book is the d├ębut author by Kathryn Hughes and has received many favourable reviews, initially I found it took me quite some time to get into the story and I genuinely couldn't understand what all the fuss was about as to how people had become so engrossed and engaged with this novel. The first part really seemed to drag for me and I thought there seems to be so many more pages still to read where can this story go? But I am very pleased to say from part two onwards this book turned a corner for me and all for the better. This is the second time within a couple of weeks that this has happened with a book I had been reading and yet again proves I shouldn't always judge a book straight away but rather persist with the read. If I had given up on this one I would have missed out on a truly gorgeous story that brought forth the realities and hardships for young women in the 1940's.

The story moves back and forth between two women Tina Craig and Chrissie Skinner in the early 1940's and 1970's. I did wonder if  there was enough of a gap here to use the time slip element? Most historical fiction books in this genre go between the modern day and a considerable distance in the past and work successfully. In this case the further into the book I read it began to work and in fact was essential to the overall plot line considering where the author takes us. In the 1970's we have Tina married to Rick - their marriage is far from perfect and Tina is beginning to realise just what kind of man she promised to spend the rest of her life with. During their courtship Rick presented himself as a charming man who would fulfill her every wish and make for her the life she deserves but now four years on the dust has settled on their wedding and his true character is emerging. Rick is not a decent man, instead treating Tina with the utmost of contempt believing she comes on to every man she meets. He spends his days gambling and drinking squandering away the money Tina works so hard to earn now that Rick is unemployed. Behind closed doors Rick dare I say it is an animal – a cruel, hateful, abusive bully and boy did he need his comeuppance. Tina's only release is on Saturday's when she volunteers in a local charity shop, this is where she discovers a sealed letter in the pocket of a suit. Should she open it? In doing so will she open a can of worms best left alone or will the contents change the life of someone who for so many years has been hurting?

In the spring of 1939 Billy Stirling attends a dance and catches the eye of young Chrissie Skinner. Her parents are a doctor and midwife respectively and on the occasion of the dance she has sneaked out from home. Her father is strict and has a set path in mind for his daughter but she does not want to conform to his ambitions for his only child. The dance changes everything although strange as it may seem Chrissie falls hook, line and sinker for handsome Billy with his sparkle and way with words on their very first encounter. Unfortunately Chrissie's deception is discovered by her parents and they are not in the least bit happy but Chrissie is a strong woman and knows what she wants. Her happiness is what is most important and if going against her parents means achieving that then that is what she will do. Chrissie and Billy spend a blissful summer together but the arrival of war alters everything. Soon Billy has enlisted and at home Chrissie finds herself in a situation that at best will leave her parents in a fury. What follows left me both angry at Chrissie's parents and in awe of how strong she becomes.

Back in 1973 Tina is determined to discover who the letter should have been delivered to and just why had it not been posted? This journey for Tina provides a welcome distraction from the ongoing cruelty she is enduring. Her own story begins to take on a life of it's own and not always for the better. But by taking on this quest it enables her to try and take the steps to freedom any reader can see she needs to take. It was evident how scared and vulnerable Tina was but I was rooting for her and hoping underneath her strength and determination could make itself known because surely there was a better future in store for her? Tina's story has so many twists and turns and some elements mirror the story of Chrissie almost 30 years earlier. When Tina goes back to Rick because of a change in her circumstances all I can say is that I was very angry and frustrated with her. What on earth was she doing after taking so long to pluck up the courage and leave to achieve independence and then after the first hurdle she goes running back. I mean can a leopard really change its spots regardless of so many promises to do so? How can someone so easily forgive and forget after so much torture both mental and physical? Tina to me seemed weak at this point where as Rick remained as threatening, foreboding and menacing as ever. The scenes that followed were heartbreaking and gut wrenching and should never happen to any woman. How Tina gathers herself together and moves forward and continues the search to join the dots of the past is nothing short of remarkable.

What of Chrissie ? Well her story is also remarkable and tugs at the heart strings but I will not reveal what happens to her and her predicament. Needless to say it highlights how different the times we live in now. How far we have come in some ways and in others not so much. What frightened me the most without giving anything away is where Chrissie finds herself still existed in the country where I live right up until the early 1990's . Which really was not long ago at all and is a shameful part of my country's past. If only that letter had been posted by Billy everything that unfolds may never have happened. Chrissie may well have led the life she was destined to have. I'm not saying she wasn't happy in a small way with how she had to live and continue on. But beneath it all there was always a resentment, a longing and a pain that could never be shut down or fully locked away without some reconciliation and confronting of the past. I loved Chrissie as a character, she was well formed and well written and clearly a woman ahead of her times but her parents actions changed the course of her life. I had so wanted her and Billy to form that long lasting love and have a marriage that lasted 50 years or more that you read about in the papers on some occasions. But was that to be ? Does Tina solve the mystery of the letter? Does the past connect with Tina in the present in a conclusion that will satisfy readers? You'll have to buy The Letter to find out.

At the halfway point of this book it did appear the later half of the book was going to descend into predictability. It seemed as if the outcome was inevitable and the reader could clearly guess what had happened and why the letter had not been sent. Even in the very late stages of the book when part three was introduced I thought what is the point in this introducing a new section when the story is more or less tied up?I couldn’t have been more wrong this part was excellent and was essential to the overall plot. It proved to be really interesting and tied all the strands of the story together. My predictability comment was shoved firmly under the carpet as I couldn't have been more wrong. In fact I would say the last few chapters proved to be the strongest parts of the book which is saying something considering all that come before. So despite initial misgivings through nothing but my own forming of opinions way too early The Letter proved to be a well thought out read that brought to life elements of the past which some people would rather see forgotten but in my view need to be shared and talked about. It may not be my favourite historical read of the year (I really don't think anything can top Letters to the Lost) but none the less I would definitely recommend it as the author has you rooting for both our female protagonists in equal measure whilst dying to know the secret behind the letter. I'll certainly be reading more from Kathryn Hughes in the future.

I'd like to thank Emma for reviewing The Letter which we received from the publisher via NetGalley.

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