Reviewed by Emma Crowley
When tragedy strikes, twenty-six-year-old Gwen Stanley finds herself suddenly jobless and heartbroken. With nowhere to turn, she retreats to Hopley, a crumbling little village deep in the heart of the English countryside. Wandering the winding lanes and daydreaming about what could have been, Gwen feels lost for the first time in her life.
Until one day she pushes through the creaking doors of a tiny stone church at the edge of the village, empty and forgotten by nearly everyone. There she stumbles on a book full of local secrets and is instantly drawn into the mystery of who could have left them there, and why.
When she’s unexpectedly joined by handsome local artist Jarvis, Gwen is caught off-guard. He seems just as fascinated by what’s in the book as she is… but why? Can she trust Jarvis’s motives really are what he says they are? And are the butterfly flutters she feels whenever they’re together because she’s one step closer to learning the book’s secrets… or might the little village church actually hold the key to healing Gwen’s poor, trampled heart?
Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The Little Book of Secrets to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
Hidden Secrets at the Little Village Church is Tracy Rees’ first foray into contemporary women’s fiction having written historical fiction which she still continues to do so. I always wonder why an author chooses to deviate from their usual genre and question will it work? Here it has proven to be very successful and I do hope that Tracy continues to write in both genres.
This book is an absolutely gorgeous and charming read with two main characters you root for from page one. They both gradually realise their true potential as the story unfolds and they go on a journey they perhaps didn’t think they could face but the issue of the church brings them together leading to unexpected but welcome understanding and acceptance. Before I read this book it underwent both a title and cover change, and at times this frustrates me as it seems to happen quite regularly for no obvious reason, but here I could see the reasons for it and I feel both the new cover and title are much more apt for the book overall.
As much as I liked Jarvis as a character, for me Gwen is the stand out character in this book. I think we can all see aspects of ourselves in her, be they big or small. She is easy to identify with and you feel great sympathy for the situation she finds herself in. She is troubled, worn down and the numbing depression continues to erode at her on a daily basis. She never feels excited or enthusiastic anymore. Everything is such an effort for her and her low spirits means she is really struggling. Following the death of her parents in a car crash she moved to the little village of Hopely to live with her Aunt. You would think her Aunt would offer the comfort, solace and protection she so desperately needs at such a tragic time in her life. But this is not forthcoming and the constant barbs, put downs, complaints and just down right nastiness only add to her state of shyness, isolation and sadness. Gwen is made to feel like an unwelcome guest at a time when she should be embraced. You can see her sinking further and further into a place that will be very hard to come back from.
The only form of light that Gwen has is when she attends a weekly service at St. Domena’s church where Reverend David Fairfield is in desperate need of some sort of saviour who can raise enough funds to get the church roof repaired. Time is running out and he has but a few short months to get the funds needed or else the church will close for good. A visitors guest book is the catalyst that begins a transformation in Gwen. This change is slow and steady and perfectly executed throughout the book. Nothing is forced or rushed for if it had been it wouldn’t have been realistic as Gwen is so deep in her grief and anxiety that an overnight new Gwen emerging would have been too far fetched. A project is born where Gwen will look through the visitors book in the hopes of making contact with those who visited in the past and perhaps they will make a donation to the roof repairs. This task gives Gwen a focus and a means of getting away from her aunt if even for a short while.
As she is so shy and avoids human contact if at all possible poor Gwen doesn’t bank on having Jarvis muscling in on the project. But maybe St. Domena’s, the village of Hopely, and Gwen herself need Jarvis by their side even if Gwen wants to run a mile when she sees him appear at the church. Gwen had never been the most confident person, never felt able to reach out and grab life like her friend Amma and with the loss of her parents these feelings and opinions come ever closer to the fore. She has no faith in herself to make a go of things and her sense of self has been eroded so much that she can’t imagine an independent life that would make her happy. But the meeting of herself and Jarvis is a pivotal turning point in her life if she is only willing to step outside of the confines that she has erected around herself and find her true potential and the place where she is meant to be.
Jarvis is the total anthesis of Gwen. He spends his nights drinking and partying with friends and his parents can barely get him to do anything. His job at the local shop is not where his life’s ambitions lie but the art degree he was working on is now but a distant memory. He drinks a lot to transcend the jittery uncomfortable feelings that plague him and when he doesn’t he has suspicions that he isn’t good enough and that he is a waste of space. Beneath this bravado of partying and drinking lies a much gentler Jarvis and one you would love to get to know more deeply. He is missing purpose and self respect, perhaps even friendship, and you hope he can find these things once again and fulfil his hidden aspiration. You would never have thought he would have volunteered for the project but he has his own personal reasons which were just so lovely and heart-warming. In one sense you hoped to see his own mission completed but as the story developed you desperately hoped that something else would step in and take it’s place as it seemed a natural course for the book to turn in.
Gwen and Jarvis on first meeting really rub each other up the wrong way. Gwen wants total control over the project and has her own set way of doing things but as they open up to each other and Jarvis introduces her to his family. She can see that there is a better life outside the realm of her penny pinching, butter and sharp tongued Aunt. You wonder whether she can build up the confidence to embrace what is within her grasp if she can only be pushed in the right direction. The book is the only little thing that makes her feel again and she can’t bare to let it go again. I loved the little stories that emerged as Gwen and Jarvis made contact with some of the names they find in the visitors book. They worked so well within the overall story. Their various life stories and their reasons for making a donation were heart warming and offered inspiration for both Gwen and Jarvis in more ways than one. It’s such a unique overall concept that perfectly formed the backbone of the book and allowed many other strands to effortlessly develop from it. Overall, it gave the book a lovely and natural flow and you just hope that the church can be saved and that Jarvis and Gwen find what has evaded them for so long.
Hidden Secrets at the Little Village Church was a wonderful read with such heart-warming, generous and pleasing themes at its centre. I loved every minute of it and you’ll find it difficult to put down once you begin. Two lost souls unit for a common cause and in doing so a wonderful, life affirming story unfolds. Initially both Gwen and Jarvis are unlikely and perhaps uninspiring but Tracy Rees wove a fantastic story that brought them together for one common cause and in doing so their efforts did as much for them as they have done for the church. I was delighted to see that there will be a second story set in Hopely and fingers crossed this will be arriving sooner rather than later as I very much enjoyed my time in this brilliant setting.