Love, memories and the cost of freedom – this is an historical novel which takes expectations for Victorian life and shatters them. Julie Cohen has created characters that have real life and real emotions, however many challenges they must face. Looking at the secrets of spiritualism, this book considers at what people most want, and what that can cost. Viola is a woman who understands something of grief, and a remarkable discovery means that she wants to help others in their loss. Jonah, a quiet man, is full of duty, but struggles to come to terms with the secret behind his dutiful heroism. Henriette is famous for bringing messages from those who have gone to those who desperately seek, but knows that she must fight to survive. All three become connected, but in different ways, as prejudice, duty and suspicion dominate their lives. This is a splendid examination through people’s lives of the rules of sexuality and more, themes which are still relevant in today’s society. This is a beautifully written book, and I am so pleased that I have had the opportunity to read and review this book.
The book opens with a vivid picture of quite a dull event in many ways, the marriage of Jonah and Viola. Viola is a vicar’s daughter, but her much loved parent has just died. The vicarage where she has grown up, where the young Jonah stayed during holidays, can no longer be her home, and Jonah has promised to marry her. So while she is dislocated by grief, and he is nursing a secret which he feels unable to share, they marry and commence parallel lives. Moving to Dorset, they set up home where they are unknown, but gradually they receive invitations partly because of Jonah’s fame. Until her father’s death, Viola had been a keen amateur photographer with him, learning about every stage of taking images and producing photographic prints. It is only after meeting the remarkable Henriette that she feels inspired to attempt photographs again, with remarkable results. Jonah feels challenged in a completely different way by a session with Henriette; he feels consumed by memories of his life changing experiences in Delhi, an unresolved guilt and an overwhelming sadness. Henriette, it soons becomes plain, is not what she seems, and her determination to survive and follow an unexpressed love is what drives her, but her discoveries are revelations to a woman who shocks others for a living.
This is such a well balanced book of twists and turns, revelations and surprises which fit beautifully within a very English setting, where even the weather seems to mirror the emotions. Contrasted with that is the bright whiteness of life in Delhi, the confusions of cultures, the limitations placed on Jonah. I found that the characters in this book are really well drawn and powerfully presented, especially the women who must fight to create truthful lives for themselves. The societies presented also hint at the inequalities of poverty beyond gender though that is a sufficient restriction on many lives. This is more than a historical novel; it deals with faith, love and truthful lives, and I recommend it as a powerful read.
It is books like this which remind me while I love historical fiction which goes beyond royalty and the famous, to look at what life for people, especially women, was actually like. Far from being a straightforward romance, this book revels in so much more.