Published by Sourcebooks Landmark on August 7, 2018
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Source: the publisher
Purchase: Amazon | Book Depository | Bookshop
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Also by this author: Named of the Dragon, The Shadowy Horses
"The house, when I first saw it, seemed intent on guarding what it knew; but we all learned, by the end of it, that secrets aren't such easy things to keep."
It's late summer, war is raging, and families are torn apart by divided loyalties and deadly secrets. In this complex and dangerous time, a young French Canadian lieutenant is captured and billeted with a Long Island family, an unwilling and unwelcome guest. As he begins to pitch in with the never-ending household tasks and farm chores, Jean-Philippe de Sabran finds himself drawn to the daughter of the house. Slowly, Lydia Wilde comes to lean on Jean-Philippe, true soldier and gentleman, until their lives become inextricably intertwined. Legend has it that the forbidden love between Jean-Philippe and Lydia ended tragically, but centuries later, the clues they left behind slowly unveil the true story.
Part history, part romance, and all kinds of magic, Susanna Kearsley's latest masterpiece will draw you in and never let you go, even long after you've closed the last page.
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.
In Bellewether, Susanna Kearsley’s beautiful prose and trademark twin-stranded story structure come together in a lovely novel about family divisions, love, loss, and healing.
The novel is beautifully constructed, the double strands of past and present interweaving in a kind of dance as we follow the stories of Lydia and Jean-Phillippe, a British colonist and a captured French officer during the Seven Years War*, and Charley, a modern-day curator in charge of turning Lydia’s family home into a museum. Wilde House itself provides the most obvious physical connection between history and the present day. As the story progresses, other artifacts also serve to tangibly bridge the gulf: a button, a chair, a set of books, a painting. Recurring events in the narrative often link scenes in the past and present, like an approaching storm or a light in the forest.
There are also thematic similarities. Both Charley’s family and Lydia’s are grieving and in pain, Charley’s from the death of her brother, the 18th-century Wildes from the loss of Lydia’s mother and from brother Joseph’s war trauma. Lydia and Charley are trying to fill the missing person’s shoes, and each feels inadequate to the task. Both families are or will be divided by war, and both experience fraught relations with extended family members. Other themes bridge the divide between the past and present stories as well, from racism and the rejection of it to the slow, almost unnoticed growth of love.
Subtle and perceptive, Kearsley’s writing combines the sensitive detail of a pencil drawing with something of the quiet richness of an oil painting. It shimmers with details that bring both worlds to life: the piercing beauty of a sunrise, the look and feel of a room, the sound and feel of soft waves against your legs, the quiet creak of a floorboard as someone moves in another part of the house. She brings the same insight and clarity to her characters, describing each one’s appearance and personality through the perceptions of the three POV characters. Charley, as the only first-person narrator and the sole POV character in the present time, is the only one whose personality we must assess through her thoughts and actions alone, without the aid of outside eyes.
Kearsley tells both stories chronologically, but there are deliberate jumps where weeks or months are omitted, and backstories are revealed only slowly, over time. Like a person doing historical or genealogical research, or a foreigner trying to make sense of those around them without knowing the language, the reader must construct the whole story out of the pieces they are given (though rest assured that all the necessary pieces are in place by the end.) This is also true of relationships within the story, particularly that of Lydia and Jean-Phillippe. Rather than being told in detail how each character feels, for some while the reader sees only hints of those feelings. The effect is a process of revelation and discovery not unlike the journeys experienced by Lydia, Jean-Phillipe, and Charley themselves.
Ms. Kearsley based this novel on aspects of her own family genealogy and history, as well as meticulous research. Burnished by the magic of her imagination and the beauty of her prose, the result is a lovely and luminous novel, and one of the best books I’ve read all year.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- COYER Birthday Bash 2018