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. 

The Garden of Lost and Found by Harriet Evans – an immense of book of historical and contemporary fiction



A painting which captures so much, a house which is an escape and a challenge, a book of desperate situations; there is so much going on this novel that the reader must really concentrate but is greatly rewarded for the effort. Taking place in several times and in several places, it is held together by a painting of a garden and a house which is emblematic of so much for the characters. At least two casts of characters, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century and the twenty first century, which look backward and forward, are linked by art and the concept of art. There is also tragedy, the importance of friendship, and the insidious effect of bullying whether physically or through the medium of the internet. There are characters which truly leap off the page, vivid descriptions of settings that they discover or rediscover, and the little incidents which fill a rich and complex text which cannot be hurried. A substantial book on many levels, I was so grateful to be given the opportunity to read and review this novel for the tour.


The book opens with an otherwise idyllic scene, a garden and a special house in June 1918, but immediately Lydia Dysart Horner realises that she could have perhaps acted earlier to try to save the immensely famous picture called “The Garden of Lost and Found”.  This immensely famous painting seemed to have had an almost mystical power on everyone who looked at it, revealing much about the glorious garden so lovingly described, but also focused on the figures of two children to be discovered in the foreground who seem to sum up enormous sentiment. Lydia or Liddy desperately realises that whatever compels her husband at this point is not simple; that he is suffering from the loss of people, of talent, of honour.


The scene shifts to the situation of a young woman, Juliet, in a London house, as she realise that her marriage to Matt is in trouble, her eldest daughter is suffering, and she is struggling to hold everything together.This particular day is significant as a sketch, the only remnant known of Horner’s famous painting, is to be auctioned by the company which she works for, and that she is a direct descendant of the painter. She is bitterly unhappy at work, where her misogynist boss is eager to get rid of her when she makes her feelings known about the sale and his attitude to her. A mysterious discovery gives her an alternative, as she suddenly realises that she can return to a house which dominated her otherwise unhappy childhood.


The slips between times are perhaps difficult to follow at times, but can be moving as we see the difficulties of life in Victorian times, when unutterably tragic situations mean that the very survival of women is uncertain, where children and young people are imperilled by attitudes, greed and lack of medical help. There is immense research behind this book, a great feeling for time and space, and a fantastic, almost visual eye for detail. This is a mature and complex novel which has so much weight in terms of handling complicated historical material, as well as contemporary pressures, especially on women, when they feel compelled to fight for the wellbeing of their children as well as themselves. This book has so much emotional weight to offer, but also the presence of hope as symbolised by a house and garden which has dominated the lives of generations. This is a book that is to be embarked on with readiness for discoveries, historical fiction at its best, and suspense tinged with sadness for those who lose much. A terrific read, recommended for so many reasons, and an experience not to be missed.    



We have been to see an extremely energetic production of Evita in a local theatre. With an incredible actor playing Eva Peron, marvellous dancing and amazing singing, this was certainly not to be missed in Long Eaton, Nottinghamshire. Having seen this in its original run in London many years ago, it remains a firm favourite, and also forms part of my proposed conference paper in June as I look at the legacy of Eva Peron. Wish me luck; it’s a huge subject.