Writer: Robert Bluck
Publishing House: Unbound Digital
Date of Publication: January 20th 2017
Rating: 5 stars
‘’Are you a person in my story, or am I a person in yours?’’
Once in a while, we choose a book attracted by its cryptic blurb. There is a certain ‘’something’’ in a vague description that entices us to take a small leap of faith and dedicate our precious reading time to it. This was the case with Robert Bluck’s novel. I was intrigued, but I didn’t expect much. Frankly, I thought this would be the same old- in a good way, though- story of a girl who is transported to a fairytale world. And I began reading it during the first days of Christmas because this is the best time for fairy tales. I couldn’t be more wrong, my friends. This is no YA fairytale fantasy. Not even remotely close. It is a magical and yet strangely realistic and tangible contemporary novel of a sweet family and a mysterious stranger, of wonders and daily sorrows that can be mended. And the reading year of Our Lord 2018 couldn’t have started in a better way.
A close-knit family of four lives in Newcastle. Helen and Keith and their three children, the twins Jonathan and Ben and Emma, a bright, bookish, sensitive teenager. A very sympathetic, balanced and ordinary family with its own ups and downs. Keith has work-related problems, Emma is fully absorbed with her exams, boys are boys and Helen is the tie that keeps everything and everyone in order. After a sudden misfortune, they decide to spend some peaceful summertime in a forest lodge close to Hexham, in rural Northumberland and there they meet a kind, mysterious elderly man who introduces himself as Matthew the Woodreeve. The rest you’ll have to discover by reading the book:)
Well, where to begin? It may sound as a simple story, but it is so layered and rich. I thought I knew the direction of the plot -and I did guess a key part of it- but there are quite a few twists, given the premise. There are images from Art in the form of a Cézanne painting that has a major position in the story and a plethora of bookish references with a focus on Thomas Hardy whose novels are full of nature and tortured characters. Instances related to the 2012 Olympics held in London brought a sweet sense of nostalgia. In fact, I felt that nostalgia is a core theme in the novel. The bittersweet thoughts for a simple, more innocent, albeit more naive and unforgiving, era.
The environment and its influence on the human soul are crucially integrated in the story. Without becoming didactic, we are shown that the respect for what is freely and generously given to us and th close contact with our natural surroundings have the power to change our lives. It may sound detrimental, clichéd, preachy. However, consider how we feel after a week spent in a mountain lodge or a quaint seaside village, away from our metropolis stress. This is why I didn’t find any of the messages of the story far-fetched or scholarly. The way I see it when things beyond our control make our lives bleak, we need a source of help, courage to continue and as much peace of mind as we can find. What better place to find them than nature, the way God has created it, even if we do our best to wound her irreversibly on a daily basis?
I found the characters and the writing engaging and very satisfying. They are everyday people we can relate to, with problems and aspirations we all experience. Emma and Matthew are the central figures that drive the story forward, the old and the new generation that have much more in common than we believe. The technique of the Story Within the Story is delightful and exceptionally done. I appreciated the fact that the writer didn’t shy away from focusing on the various aspects of mental illness set in a time when it was considered a terrible stigma. The short chapters fly by, the dialogue is well-composed and the descriptive passages are written in a way that is quietly beautiful, almost soothing. Perhaps, I could say that there are certain repetitions and coincidences that are predictable but the notion of the characters who decide to dare and change their lives and the well-placed Magical Realism hints here and there more than make up for the technicalities.
So, what started as an unambitious, light read (as ‘’light’’ as I can do, in any case…) became a very memorable reading experience and a book that I can wholeheartedly recommend. A beautiful reading start to 2018. May it be happy for all of us, full of beautiful, weird, bleak (come on, you knew I’d say this:) ) exciting reads and interesting discussions. And with less stupidity and mean comments all around us….
‘’You cannot go where I have been, you cannot see what I have seen.’’
Many thanks to Unbound Digital and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange of an honest review.