Letters From the Past by Erica James – a story of a family and friends in a Suffolk village, 1962
Letters can be powerful things, and in this book they take on special resonance as from early in the book they threaten relationships. This novel is actually a sequel to a previous book concerning this very extended family, but I read it as a standalone. It means that the first section shows several people going about their lives but it is quickly revealed the relationships between the people who are nearly all in Suffolk, England, where the central house in the story is to be found. Island House has evidently been home at some point to many of the characters in the novel, though its owner, Romily Deveraux- Temple is in America at the beginning of the book. The time is autumn of 1962, when war is a memory from childhood for many of the characters. Evelyn is married to Kit, and has two children who are at Cambridge University. His sister, Hope, is married to Evelyn’s brother, Edmund, with an adopted daughter Annelise who is a junior fellow in Oxford. Kit and Hope’s other brother, Arthur is the permanently angry and aggressive husband of Julia, father to Ralph and Julia’s son Charles. Julia, Hope and Evelyn together with Florence, Romily’s housekeeper, all receive unsettling anonymous letters. The book is so well constructed that all the characters have their story told, but Romily’s story is once more big enough to encompass all the others. I was pleased and intrigued to have the opportunity to read and review this extremely engaging book of family and friends.
Melstead St Mary is a small village, where generations of people have worked together and relationships have become complex over the year. Evelyn’s marriage to Kit during the War followed his severe injuries on a ship, and her own work and experiences at Bletchley Park. When she receives a letter which questions her children’s parentage, it sets off all sorts of memories. Hope is a successful author of children books and is driven to work, while her husband is the local doctor. Edward’s dedication to the people of the village makes a letter’s suggestion of his multiple infidelities possible to Hope’s already confused mind. Julia is already in an abusive relationship as Arthur is excessively controlling and dominating, so a letter which alleges her inadequacy is profoundly disturbing. Meanwhile, Romily is in America meeting a mysterious writer who may work on a film adaptation of one of her books. Red St Clair is a man who has an attitude which she finds annoying and upsetting, but there is something which she finds more attractive than she can understand. Many storylines come together as desperation and drama come to a head during a Christmas which brings the area to a temporary halt.
This book takes complex and three dimensional characters and situations and presents them in a linear way which develops ideas and associations so cleverly that the story is satisfactorily explored. There are moments of high drama, and painful memories here, but all are dealt with in a sensitive and appealing way. I was really drawn into the story and I found every character, even relatively minor ones, have realistic and understandable motives for what they do and say.This is a mature novel which offers enormous insight into relationships which exist outside strict conventions and expectations. I recommend this book as a wonderfully engaging family story.
I am pleased to note that I am the final stop on a tour for this book which deserves a great deal of attention for another novel by this successful author. I particularly enjoyed the setting of this novel having spent many years in Suffolk, even if I never experienced a significant snow fall there! James is especially good at blending a large number of characters into a story line which includes elements from previous experiences and times, and she demonstrates that skill most effectively here. I will be keen to track down more of her booksas soon as possible.