The House in the Orchard by Elizabeth Brooks (Fiction)

Plot: 2/5 Characters: 3/5 Writing: 3/5

A story within a story — in 1941 Peggy inherits the house in the orchard (in Cambridgeshire) from her husband’s Aunt Maude (her husband died in the war). Her rather difficult father-in-law (Maude’s brother Frank) hates the place and encourages her to sell. The bulk of the book is Peggy reading Maude’s diary (beginning in 1876) — a rather horrific tale of how Maude came to own the place.

I wanted to like this book — I love English historical fiction, and there was the potential for a good story. “Victorian era girl brought up to be proper in a home devoid of warmth makes good” is the story I wanted to read, but it was not to be. Instead I disliked her more and more until I thought I couldn’t dislike her any more (I was wrong). By the end, I had to ask myself what was the point of the book? What lesson should I have learned? Who was I supposed to empathize with? And was the story at all believable?

The story moved slowly, and there was a lot of description which I kind of skimmed over, but my main objection is the insidious way the story went downhill into darkness. Luckily (for me) it was not written in a melodramatic way, so I was able to finish the book with my emotional state intact, but I can’t say I gained any wisdom or enjoyment from reading it.

Thank you to Tin House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 27th, 2022.

The Orphan of Salt Winds by Elizabeth Brooks

Thanks to NetGalley and Tin House Books for an advance review copy. The Orphan of Salt Winds will be published on Jan. 16, 2019.

Writing: 4 Characters: 3.5 Plot: 3

A dark and moody historical drama set against English marshes on the eve of WWII. Virginia — a ten-year-old orphan — comes to live at Salt Winds as the adopted daughter of Clem and Lorna. Clem is the author of wildlife books and Lorna a somewhat reluctant housewife. Tension unfurls at a steady and insidious pace as Virginia works to makes sense of the strain between her adoptive parents and the perfidious and disagreeable neighbor Max Deering. When a German aviator crashes into the marsh, events unfold that lead to a terrible denouement. Alternating chapters take place in 2015 when Virginia, in her dotage and still haunted by past events, spies a young girl clinging to the marsh wall in the bitter winds.

The writing is very good and the tension palpable. The descriptive prose brings the marshes and the time to life. The pacing is a bit slow for my taste with not enough story to warrant the length, and I would have liked a more upbeat ending. One of the more interesting aspects of the book for me is the way Virginia’s (and therefore our) understanding of individual characters changes over time. For example, Clem is the sympathetic character at the start — he behaves like a father while Lorna doesn’t seem to know what to do with the role of mother that has been foisted upon her. However, over time Virginia begins to see, and understand, how circumstance shaped Lorna and how she finally pushes through a learned submissiveness to become the person she needed to be. It’s interesting to realize that we see everything through the eyes of a ten- to twelve-year-old, and later through the eyes of the (somewhat bitter) old woman she becomes.

Good for fans of Kate Morton.