The Beloved Girls by Harriet Evans – a memorable novel of the disturbed past and the unsettled present
The Beloved Girls by Harriet Evans
Who are the Beloved Girls? Why are they important to an old ceremony related to bees? What really happened to the Hunter family? There are so many questions which arise in this book as it progresses, at every turn the main characters are bewildered by what is happening, the presence or non-presence of people, the suspense and tension building. The atmosphere of the book is so well described that reading it has an effect on the senses; the sound of the bees, the sight of a coastal area in contrast with the streets and buildings of London. There are references to the smell “The smell of the sea and salt that reached out to us across the expanse of turf and meadow, the lightest, slightest wafts of it.” The characters, Catherine or Kitty, Janey, Simon, Sylvia among others, are described in some detail; some give their own accounts of what happened, what they did, how they felt. This is a book with writing that goes beyond beautiful, mixing gentle, brutal, spanning life and death. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this incredible book.
The book begins with a Prologue set in October 1983, in which a twelve year old Janey visits Vanes with her father, shortly after her mother had walked out on them. Simon, her father, describes Vanes as “a funny old house”, where they hold a ceremony in a nearby semi- derelict chapel every year. She meets the almost childlike Sylvia, her brisk husband Charles and her children, the twins Joss and Kitty and “little Merry”. Janey’s time at Vanes is like a dream,with so much she doesn’t understand, but also so much which is bewitching and enchanting. The effects of the brief visit linger for the next five years as Janey says that every day she thinks of Kitty, every time she sees a dead bee.
Part One is set in 2018 is written from the point of view of Catherine, now a successful barrister. She has children, Carys and Tom, and is married to Davide, but she begins her account with the phrase “When did it begin to fall apart?” She has a seemingly charmed life, she works hard, her husband loves her. Yet she is fragile in a way, a recent case of a schoolboy murder, seeming to see someone from her past, an unexplained disturbance in the house. A minor injury literally unbalances her, she begins to see her life differently. Even an upcoming anniversary seems troubling, despite her husband’s obvious love for her. Nothing is plain, everything is suggested, as she remembers what has happened in the past, and how that impacts on her present. Her life is well described, a world away from the Vanes, a world of paperwork, of legal matters, of a family completely separate from her childhood.It is a powerful contrast. The book goes on to look at other times, the visit of someone else to Vanes, a troubling time in so many ways. It seems the only way to cope with the present is to go back, to think of things that were thought to be over and long ago.
This is the sort of book that lingers in the memory long after it is finished. I enjoyed the atmosphere it created with its superb writing and carefully organised memories. This is a book which evokes strong emotions and tension with every character description. I strongly recommend this book for the beauty of its writing and the mastery of the characters.