Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Emma's Review: The English Girl by Katherine Webb

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

Joan Seabrook, a fledgling archaeologist, has fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit Arabia by travelling from England to the ancient city of Muscat with her fiancé, Rory. Desperate to escape the pain of a personal tragedy, she longs to explore the desert fort of Jabrin, and unearth the treasures it is said to conceal.

But Oman is a land lost in time - hard, secretive, and in the midst of a violent upheaval - and gaining permission to explore Jabrin could prove impossible. Joan's disappointment is only alleviated by the thrill of meeting her childhood heroine, pioneering explorer Maude Vickery, and hearing first-hand the stories that captured her imagination and fuelled her ambition as a child.

Joan's encounter with the extraordinary and reclusive Maude will change everything. Both women have things that they want, and secrets they must keep. As their friendship grows, Joan is seduced by Maude's stories, and the thrill of the adventure they hold, and only too late does she begin to question her actions - actions that will spark a wild, and potentially disastrous, chain of events.

Will the girl that left England for this beautiful but dangerous land ever find her way back?.

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The English Girl is the sixth novel from Katherine Webb and unlike anything I have read from her before. I have been a fan of Katherine's books right from her first release, I adored The Legacy and The Unseen and reviewed the brilliant The Night Falling last year. For me this new book wasn't as good as her previous work but still a very interesting read. 

Set in Oman, a country I would never have given any thought to and honestly I only have a vague notion as to where it could be on the world map, this book proved to be a slow, leisurely read gradually building the plot bit by bit to a conclusion I never expected nor saw coming. Joan Seabrook, a would be archaeologist, has recently arrived in Muscat, a hot, sticky, burning city, with her fiancée Rory. The government of the country is very strict they do not welcome foreign visitors but Joan is staying with the British foreign minister a man who had been at school with her father. Joan is keen to explore the city and its surrounding desert area but Muscat is not a city in which women should be wandering alone beneath the scorching Arabian sun. You would think Rory would be there to look after and protect her but it seems the heat is too much for him and he prefers to try and stay somewhat cool back at the residence. If Rory hadn't dealt with the heat this way then maybe Joan would never have fulfilled the ambition that came with her to this foreign, exhilarating country. That was to find her hero, explorer Maude Vickery – the first woman to traverse The Empty Quarter of the desert. If this encounter had never took place Joan would not be the woman she became by the end of the novel.

The author describes the country as 'clean, warm, entirely wholly other than life as she knew it. And Joan was just beginning to realise how very much she wanted life to be other than she knew it'. This trip would prove to be life changing for Joan in so many ways. When Joan finally gets to meet Maude she is sorely let down by what she sees and hears. The picture she had built up in her head of this pioneering woman who at such a young age travelled to the wildest parts of the Middle East to visit ancient civilisations is not what Joan expected or wanted. Maude is old and bitter living in a ramshackle house served by an old man who has been with her for years. The author does take us back in time to hear Maude's story right from her childhood in England through to her travels as she grows into a young woman. These sections were far more interesting than reading of Joan in Muscat in the late 1950's. Maude was a brave, inventive woman who knew what she wanted and would do anything at any cost to get it. She had led a rich and varied life which only begs the question what has led her to become so bitter and distant? What is she hiding that she refuses to tell Joan? Joan was just that bit gullible to believe that after so much longing to meet one's long time hero that everything could and would turn out to be a bed of roses. I felt she got so sucked in by Maude that she would do anything Maude asked of her no matter what danger that meant putting herself in.

Joan does grow in strength as the book progresses, she appeared a little lost at first still reeling from the loss of her beloved father some months before. It's obvious family relations are quite strained so when she hears her brother Daniel who is in the army is to be stationed nearby she jumps at the opportunity to visit him at his base. Joan soon learns he too is hiding something and her love for him makes her question just what is going on? I could tell what was going on and couldn't fathom how Joan could be so blinkered in this respect. 

The story meanders on at a very slow pace for the majority of the book. We do learn of the history of the country and of the current internal conflict but it became a bit too detailed and confusing for me to keep up with all the factions and their reasons for fighting. One aspect where the author does excel is in her vivid, rich descriptions - be it the unforgiving desert, the bustling streets or the rancid, dangerous city jail I felt I was there with Joan as she navigates the problems presented to her by Maude or by her desire to visit Jebel Akhdar a mountainous oasis held strong by rebel forces. Time and time again Joan put herself in unnecessary danger and it made me dislike her. There were other powers at play and she just came across as a young innocent, silly young woman until her worth was finally proven.

The English Girl is very different from what Katherine Webb has written before. This book was extremely character driven and at times it suffered a bit because of this. I'm not saying the rest of Katherine's books were action packed but they did have plenty more twists and turns which kept me guessing and held my interest. Here the twists came in the very last quarter and up until this point I really was growing weary of the characters. Normally I fully engage with and love the main female protagonist in books I read but here Joan just didn't appeal to me. You could see she had an adventurous spirit about her yet at times she acted completely ignorant to what was going on around her particularly in relation fiancée Rory. I understand women were constrained at that time by the rules and conventions of society but you could say Maude never let that stop her. So why should Joan let it? At times I felt like I was in the desert myself wading through the sand trying to reach my destination as nothing really seemed to happen and the reader was trudging ever so slowly towards some sort of action. I came very close to giving up on this book something I normally never do. I always want to give the book and the author the best possible chance. I'm glad I did persevere with this one as the last quarter more than made up for what had proceeded it.

I was fully prepared to say this book really wasn't the one for me despite my love for this author's work. But thankfully and although it might sound weird the last quarter redeemed itself so much that I found myself looking at the entire book in a whole new light and finding things I had missed or paid scant attention to. In fact The English Girl was very cleverly written and there was plenty of clues dropped throughout but Katherine did a great job in pulling the wool over my eyes. Yes at the time of reading I nearly had had enough and my above comparison of wading through sand still stands as that was how I felt reading certain sections at the time but now on reflection I see Katherine Webb has written a deep, astute book that I didn't appreciate at the time. It became clear to me that Joan was like a pawn in a bigger game that she had no idea she was a part of. Maude was not the innocent little old lady she claimed to be and I did feel desperately sorry for Joan as the woman she had come to call her friend and her long term idol may not have lived up to her expectations. 

With The English Girl I think Katherine Webb has written a book that she has wanted to write for quite some time. The research was impeccable rich in detail of time and place but just that little bit too much character driven for me. New readers to this author's work would do better to read some of Katherine's earlier books to get a flavour for her work. Old fans may be slightly disappointed like I was or else will totally embrace this book, none the less it hasn't put me off reading anything Katherine will publish in the future.

Many thanks to Orion publishing for my copy of this book to review via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

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