Reviewed by Emma Crowley
When you've forgotten how to live, help can arrive in mysterious ways...
Successful artist Isabel Ramsay has never come to terms with the tragic death of her mother. Haunted by what happened, Isabel finds her own life spiralling out of control until, one winter s day, she gives up, unable to bear the pain of living any longer. Yet somehow she wakes up, remembering a vision of a mysterious woman who has saved her. But alone in a locked house, surely that's impossible?
With her family and friends worried out of their minds, her husband Angus finds a companion to watch over Isabel while he's away from home. Warm, wise Clara can connect with Isabel in a way no one else can, helping her face up to her painful past, rediscover her passion for art and become brave enough to live her life again. But there s a mystery surrounding Clara: who is she, and why does Isabel feel she's known her all her life?
Don't Be Afraid is the fourth in a series written by Daniela Sacerdoti set in a small fictional rural village called Glen Avich. I've never read anything by this author before and normally don't like reading a series if I haven't been with it from the start but I was reassured this new release could be read as a standalone novel. Don't Be Afraid has a lovely, simple cover with an intriguing tag line 'Sometimes you need an angel to take you by the hand'. My curiosity was aroused and having heard good things about this authors books I began to read the story of Isabel Ramsay and how her life gradually spirals out of control until everything comes to a head. Unable to endure the pain and suffering any more she just wants everything to go away and end. But is there someone about to appear in Isabel's life just when she needs it most? Someone who may just help her see that it's worth continuing on, that life is for living and to be enjoyed and there are people surrounding her who love her very much and only want the best for Isabel and her future.
In the brief few pages of the prologue the reader does get a sense of the overall feeling and themes of the book. It was a really descriptive piece of a young child in a field with her mother, a sacred special time showing a unique bond between a mother and her child. Then we fast forward many years later to a time where Isabel is grown up and married to Angus and living in a small cottage in Glen Avich. When we meet Isabel as an adult she has reached the breaking point, the point of no return where she wants everything to be over, her pain, loss, suffering and emotional torment. She can't cope with what her life and mind is throwing at her and she has made a decision which if successful will see the lives of those around her changed for ever.
Right from the opening chapter the author with her beautiful, thoughtful and detailed descriptions just draws you into the mindset of Isabel. It may sound strange to describe Isabel's attempt at finishing everything as beautiful but the words the author used depicted such images in my mind and feelings within me. Isabel feels she is surrounded by a fog, she is lifeless and at the very brink of existence. But something or someone is bringing her back. Now is not her time to go. She can overcome this. Yes you do need to suspend reality for a moment or two if you believe there was someone next to Isabel helping her come back to the real world despite her being alone in the house. The cynic in me did this because I wanted to read on and discover answers straight away but instead we are drip fed clues and reasons for the remainder of the novel.
Admittedly I initially thought this was going to be a quick read at just over 256 pages but Daniela does an incredible job of packing so much emotion into these pages that I felt I was reading for days and not hours of Isabel and her friends. This book is not action packed but instead is a superbly character driven novel that really gets inside the mind and thoughts of it's main character and opens the readers eyes to just how devastating depression can be.
After Isabel's unsuccessful attempt at suicide her husband Angus finally admits to himself something needs to be done. He can't stand by any longer and let the love of his life just give up. He acknowledges things have finally have come to a head as the woman he fell in love with and adored is a shadow of her former self and needs help. A deal is struck she will not be sent away for treatment if she agrees to take the prescribed medication and she allows outside help to come into the house. Angus plays in an orchestra and is away from home and travels a lot. Music is his passion just like art once was for Isabel but now she she cannot be left on her own for fear of what will happen next. Reading the chapter's from Angus' viewpoint you could see Angus was torn between his undying love and devotion for Isabel and for the dedication and passion he had for his professional life. Angus was desperate and at his wits end 'If you kill yourself you kill me too'. He really was split in two but just when you need help the most it surprises you and arrives. This time in the form of a visitor to Glen Avich – Clara - recently returned from Canada and having lived in Aberdeen many years ago. She is a nurse and what better person to stay in the cottage and keep an eye on Isabel when Angus has to be away. Clara had an instant calm surrounding her. Nothing seemed to phase her and as she grows to know, help and understand Isabel she achieves an awful lot through time, patience, compassion and a sympathetic ear. There was almost a magical, quality about her that nothing no matter how tough things got could ever rile her and that if you had Clara in your life all would be well.
The reader is constantly left questioning just why is Isabel the way she is? What has caused her to sink so deeply into a depression that leaves her unable to leave the house even to venture to the garden? She can't answer the phone or have people over. Instead living in a constant state of anxiety, stress and misery. Her beloved art and illustrations have fallen by the way side. Naively I did think ah come on snap out of it, you're being nothing if not selfish to those around you. How can you expect people to still care and worry about you if all you do is push them away and refuse to take tablets designed to help you? But my feelings and opinions were firmly shot down by the excellent writing from the author. I began to feel Isabel's pain and realised there must have been something traumatic and maybe permanent that caused a vibrant, lively young woman to totally change and lock herself away from the world. The writing was just so raw, open and honest never shying away from the harsh realities of an illness that so many people fail to understand. I was one of them but having read this book my opinion and viewpoint has totally changed. I'll admit though I was angry at Isabel as she pretended to take her medicine and failed to see ultimately it would do her good.
Daniela does a good job of creating the small village feel and introducing its residents. There are too many to mention here but I got the impression Torcuil - Angus's brother and his storyline may have featured in the previous books. Saying that I felt I don't need to read the previous three stories as this book appeared to have various plot lines interspersed with the overall story line here. Truthfully the village didn't give me the same cosy feeling as I experienced with other series but I suppose this book is more heart hitting and character driven with serious issues being explored. Towards the end everything did pick up pace and I felt I had been on a real journey with Isabel as she attempts to navigate the road to recovery and happiness once again.
Personally I felt the ending was a little far fetched and I need something a little more solid but it didn't ruin my overall impression of the book. I will say this though and I felt the same with a previous release from Black and White publishers - Ursula's Secret by Mairi Wilson - that the covers really don't do the book justice and some readers may let these two books mentioned pass them by. You would be forgiven for believing they were easy chick-lit books but they are not and deserve to be read by a greater audience as they have such depth and range to their storylines. Overall Don't Be Afraid is a satisfying women's fiction read with plenty of grit and real emotion and a lot of food for thought.
Many thanks to Janne from Black and White Publishing for sending me Don't Be Afraid to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.