1910, South America. A time of racial tension and poverty. A time where forbidden love must remain a secret.
Winnie Cox lives a privileged life of dances and dresses on her father’s sugar cane plantation. Life is sweet in the kingdom of sugar and Winnie along with her sister Johanna, have neither worries nor responsibilities, they are birds of paradise, protected from the poverty in the world around them.
But everything can change in a heartbeat…
When Winnie falls in love with George Quint, the post-office boy, a ‘darkie’ from the other side, she soon finds herself slipping into a double life. And as she withdraws from her family, she discovers a shocking secret about those whom are closest to her. Now, more than ever, Winnie is determined to prove her love for George, whatever price she must pay and however tragic the consequences might be.
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The Secret Life of Winnie Cox is a prequel of sorts to the brilliant The Small Fortune of Dorothea Q released last year by Sharon Maas. I reviewed that book on the blog and can say it was a surprising highlight amongst all the 2014 releases. A year later Sharon is back in what is the first in a planned trilogy set once again in British Guyana but this time back in 1910. The cover for this new book is very simple but portrays a clear, stark, powerful message that leaves the reader in no doubt that they are in for a mighty story that will expose a time in history that some wish was brushed firmly under the carpet. Right from the outset the writing in this book is beyond beautiful and resonates such a chord. There were endless quotes that you would want to write down and frame. I was blown away by the fact that an author could have love as the focus and main theme of her novel but find so many ways to describe that love. The descriptions of the plantation and the island in general were just so stunning and evocative that it didn't take much to make you feel like you were right back there on the island over 100 years ago. The writing was just so fluid and descriptive and it went a long way into making this book what it was. A deeply satisfying read of love, loss and determination.
Our main protagonist Winnie Cox (16) lives on a sugar plantation deep within British Guyana with her father Archibald and sister Yoyo (14). Her mother Ruth and elder sister Kathleen have left supposedly for the British season in order to find Kathleen a suitable husband. Winnie describes herself and Yoyo as 'Sugar Princesses in a magical realm, a sunlit, wind blown, bubble of sweetness. Sugar was our livelihood, sugar determined the seasons, sugar was our world'. With that quote alone you would be forgiven the plantation is a utopia where everything runs smoothly and as much sugar cane is produced as possible. But that is not the case.Winnie in the beginning of the book was as naïve as could be, she had everything she could possibly want and yet couldn't see the bigger picture at all nor what was going on around her. The luxuries and happy childhood she was afforded came at a price.
Her father was not as strong and perfect as she believed him to be and the author did an excellent job of building Archie up to be a certain character until his true nature was revealed. Archie's storyline was superb and tied in so well with the overall plot. Although I can't say I cared for him at all after the revelations come out. Soon enough Winnie and Yoyo are exposed to what exactly hides beneath the outer façade of the plantation, in fact it had been going on for years but they were so cosseted and lost in their own worlds they could barely see what was right before their eyes. They had never questioned anything until now but with the departure of their mother and events islandwide taking a different turn Winnie finally begins to ask those questions. Each girls reaction is different and sets the course for how they will act over the remainder of the novel. We do focus on Winnie more and I fully understand this book was about Winnie's journey from teenager to young woman but just that little bit more of Yoyo's view point would have been nice.
What struck me initially about this story was that I had read Sarah Larks series of books set on a plantation and thought this book would be too similar but this is a later period yet the same issues still existed and the plot lines were handled very differently. Slavery was supposed to have been abolished but really the African slaves had been replaced by those from India and now known as coolies. The same poor living and working conditions existed and workers did not have the wages they should have been entitled to. But times were a changing and the workers were about to exercise their rights in a peaceful a way as possible even though the plantation owners didn't agree. The girls idolise their father and believe he can do nothing wrong but when they see how he treats the coolies they have to reassess their opinions. It saddens me that just over 100 years ago which is nothing in terms of history that slavery still existed but Sharon Maas does an incredible job of outlining all sides of the story.
So what of this secret life Winnie embarks upon as suggested in the title and through the cover picture? An encounter with replacement postman for the local area - George Quint changes absolutely everything Winnie knew about love and life. Her whole mindset and beliefs are thrown into disarray and the reader can see she took one huge step from a teenager straight through to a woman. A woman who has fallen so deeply in love, that there is nothing at all she can do about it.Why in the first place should she have do something about? Well George Theodore Quint is from the other side 'a darkie' -forbidden, not to be talked about or engaged with. But when love comes calling nothing will stop it and Winnie shows us just what she is made of. Gone is the innocence, purity and naivety instead her persona changes to that of a woman who knows what she wants in life despite the barriers and divides and she will go through hell and back to be with her one true love George.
Winnie was evidently a woman going against the norms of the time and not adhering to the conventions of society but she has to be admired for following her heart although the ride is anything but plain sailing. This quote just sums that instant electricity between George and Winnie and there are so many more like this. 'His long fingers curled around mine and it was as if a current ran between us, passing from one to the other as if for those few moments we were joined, one entity, and my eyes met his again an I knew that he knew'. Once the pair lock eyes the story really picked up pace but I didn't get the ending I wanted in spite of the numerous twists and turns. So much happens but yet it seemed as if the author was holding back just that little bit as she knew there were two more books to come in the series. As they say the path of true love never runs smooth and this couldn't be more true for Winnie and George. There were far greater forces at work in opposition to their love and I loved reading how it all played out. Amongst everything that was going on there were diary extracts from Ruth going back to the time she first sets eyes on Archie. Again I found myself questioning their value or necessity in the story and again I was proved decisively wrong. The diary entries proved explosive in their overall usefulness whilst helping Winnie come to some of her own conclusions whereas if she had not read them the story may have turned out very differently.
Undoubtedly Sharon Maas has done herself proud with this fantastic novel but I sense this is just a brief taster for what is to come in the next two books. The later chapters of the book did venture somewhat into slow territory with a stalemate a such but boy did the epilogue alone redeem itself, ending on such a cliff hanger that I was left disappointed and almost angry in a way that we are left dangling and eager to see what happens next. But that is just the reader in me wanting all the answers straight away. This a coming of age story with a compelling, forceful message that deserves to be read by a wide audience. Winnie is a character who gets under your skin with her persistence in the face of adversity and oppression so that you can't help but care what happens to her and some members of her family. In the author acknowledgements Sharon Maas says 'this is a story that came from my heart' and I can see it really did. I hope many people will pick up this book and see just what magnificent writing and storytelling abilities Sharon has. I'm sorry this book had to end and have my fingers crossed Sharon doesn't leave me waiting too long for the next instalment.
Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for a copy of the book to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.