Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Emma's Review: The Girl in the Letter by Emily Gunnis

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

A heartbreaking letter. A girl locked away. A mystery to be solved.

1956. When Ivy Jenkins falls pregnant she is sent in disgrace to St Margaret's, a dark, brooding house for unmarried mothers. Her baby is adopted against her will. Ivy will never leave.

Present day. Samantha Harper is a journalist desperate for a break. When she stumbles on a letter from the past, the contents shock and move her. The letter is from a young mother, begging to be rescued from St Margaret's. Before it is too late. 
Sam is pulled into the tragic story and discovers a spate of unexplained deaths surrounding the woman and her child. With St Margaret's set for demolition, Sam has only hours to piece together a sixty-year-old mystery before the truth, which lies disturbingly close to home, is lost for ever...

Read her letter. Remember her story...

Amazon Affiliate Links: Kindle 

Many thanks to Headline via NetGalley for my copy of The Girl in the Letter to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

I really can't believe that The Girl in the Letter is only the d├ębut novel from Emily Gunnis, it reads like she has been writing for years and years so accomplished and developed was this story with endless twists, turns and surprises that leave you shocked and appalled. Boy can this author certainly tell a story that is haunting, tragic and unfortunately all too real. This story of long buried, earth shattering secrets reels you in on page one and doesn't relinquish its grasp until you reach the final sentence. I spent an afternoon glued to my chair and read this book in one sitting and when I finished the first thing I wanted to do was to tell everyone just read this book as it is fantastic. I have no doubt that come the end of the year The Girl in the Letter will feature in my top books of 2018.

The book begins with an intriguing letter written by Ivy to an Elvira explaining why she is leaving and what Elvira should do. Instantly my interest was peeked as it was clear Ivy was a woman driven by desperation at the situation she found herself in. It quickly became apparent that she was in a laundry run by nuns for unmarried mothers. My first reaction was hold on a minute didn't this happen in Ireland? The Magdalene laundries and all the atrocities that occurred in these places are now well known and there was even a laundry in the city were I live but I had never know that to a lesser extent these hell holes, for that is what they were, were in England too. Emily Gunnis had certainly opened my eyes within the first few pages and they continued to grow ever wider the more I read on. The research undertaken for this book was impeccable and I am glad that she did not spare us any of the details about the goings on behind closed doors. For far too long the church kept everything hush hush and so many young girls passed through the doors and were subjected to unspeakable horrors, hardships, humiliation and degradation.

There was a dark, suppressive feeling pervading throughout the chapters as told from Ivy's perspective but it matched the themes and content of the overall book. It continued in this manner until the very end but the book needed it, it couldn't have been all sweetness and light given the subject matter. That's not to say the story was heavy and hard to get through. Yes it was difficult to read of some of the things that occurred and it does get quite detailed but the book did have a brilliant flow and pace to it as the clock ticks down to the demolition of St.Margaret's and people rub their hands in glee that what occurred there will remain secret. Or will it?  I couldn't even contemplate such things happening today and I am glad to see young women getting the support they need today but for so many it is too late. But the story surrounding Elvira and Ivy needs to be brought out into the open and it's journalist Sam Harper who will not rest until she has the answers and establishes connections and expose those who were complacent in the destruction of so many lives.

Sam was a very driven character, there was something forcing her to keep going even though things took on very dark, dangerous and sinister undertones. At first when her Nana finds a letter from a pregnant girl to her lover in her dead husband's belongings it's presumed her grandfather was involved. But delve a little deeper and there is an extraordinary story waiting to be exposed after so many years. Sam has always been overlooked for promotion and she needs a big story to push her into the limelight, in turn this will allow her to earn more to provide for her young daughter. Will the letter be the beginning of something that will change her fortunes or will she venture down a road that is threatening, alarming and full of horrific events that someone wants everything kept under wraps and undisclosed? But the more Sam digs and probes, and begins to pull pieces together, the more she becomes so deeply invested that she will not rest until justice has been delivered. Sam was a brilliant character and to me almost like a facilitator allowing Ivy's story to come to the fore and in doing so many other things kept vague and unknown began to make themselves more apparent.

I did question the presence of a certain female character in the beginning. They seemed out of place and disjointed from the main storyline but, with everything and everyone in this story, nothing should be overlooked or dismissed as being of no importance or having no relevance because every little titbit, even if you think this means nothing, you'll soon find out that it is more than likely a major piece of the puzzle. That is what I loved about this book is that you are constantly searching for clues and connections in an attempt to pull all the pieces of the puzzle together almost racing ahead of the main character. This proved impossible for me and the big reveal left me shocked and reeling for I had never guessed it all but it was so cleverly done and so apt for everything that had occurred.

Two elements that worked brilliantly throughout the book were the use of the letters written by Ivy as they provided an insight into her mindset as to how she was coping with the life forced upon her in the laundry. They also moved the story on well and I found myself eager to get to sections as told from her viewpoint. Also there were various crucial recollections which were essential to the overall plot which I was so glad were included. I have never seen this done like this before in a book and it went a long way in explaining everything particularly the motivations of characters and the fallout of their actions. Moving back and forth between the past and the present enhanced this story no end.

It was only after I finished reading did I discover that Emily is the daughter of Penny Vincenzi whose books I adored so it's no surprise that such talent has been passed on. I love that feeling of desperately racing through the pages to discover the outcome and uncover all the lies and secrets and that's what this book provided me with. The Girl in the Letter for me had all the perfect elements I love in a book - the dual timeline which allowed this book to be classed as historical fiction contrasted with the modern day elements which took on an almost thriller like status. But also there were characters here in which you became deeply invested in and you wanted to see so many wrongs made right for them. For things to be exposed that should never have occurred in the first place. For the suffering, physical pain and mental anguish to abate. These feelings can't be forgotten or in my mind accepted but you would hope some resolution, some unloading/shedding of the burden will come to the fore.

Undoubtedly The Girl in the Letter is a gripping and, yes at times, very harrowing read but it's a story that needs to be told allowing those women who endured so much to never be forgotten to have their stories told for people today to know what went on particularly in Ireland but also to some extent in certain places in England. This was a thrilling, tense and powerful read full of honesty and intensity in which Emily Gunnis wove a masterful, compelling story whose themes will stay with you long after the turn of the last page. If this is the calibre of book one I cannot wait for what is to come in the future.

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