Kerensa Jennings- Seas of Snow

1950s England. Five-year-old Gracie Scott lives with her Mam and next door to her best friend Billy. An only child, she has never known her Da. When her Uncle Joe moves in, his physical abuse of Gracie’s mother starts almost immediately. But when his attentions wander to Gracie, an even more sinister pattern of behaviour begins.

As Gracie grows older, she finds solace and liberation in books, poetry and her enduring friendship with Billy. Together they escape into the poetic fairy-tale worlds of their imaginations. But will fairy tales be enough to save Gracie from Uncle Joe’s psychopathic behaviour – and how far will it go?

I must confess that when I started reading Seas of Snow, I was entirely unsure of what to expect, hoping that this would go far beyond a simple, linear tale of family misery. My fears were very quickly dispelled, and to be honest, this was one of the most emotive, thought-provoking, and beautifully characterised novels I have read for some time…

For the purposes of this review I will studiously avoid the words crime novel, as to my mind what Kerensa Jennings has produced with aplomb is much more akin to literary fiction, in terms of emotional depth and narrative tone. With the use of the dual narrative structure, where the past is seamlessly intertwined with the contemporary timeline,  the reader finds themselves  gently pivoted back and forth. To avoid any unwitting spoilers, the contemporary aspect of the book involves two characters looking back on childhood events with their knowing adult perspective, but so as not to reveal a hugely surprising twist in the tale I can say no more. Suffice to say this part of this story was incredibly moving, and sees these characters wrestling with the emotional consequences of the events so many years previously. It is emotionally uplifting yet perturbing in equal measure, as Jennings’ explores the themes of redemption and blame in relation to their actions, leading to some exceptionally moving revelations.

Instead, what I will focus on is Jennings’ absolute mastery of the language and thought of both Grace and Billy as children. I do tend to avoid reading books with a child’s narrative, as I am so often disappointed by the lack of realism, and how many authors slip into the attribution of adult reasoning that then undermines the credibility of the young narrator. Jennings’ portrayal of her child protagonists is never less than perfectly realised. Gracie’s dialogue, thoughts and child’s reasoning is absolutely authentic throughout, and as a reader, when the dark events unfold, you are genuinely terrified for her. Jennings’ depiction of the abuse that Gracie suffers is totally unflinching, so much so that at times I had to physically take a breath when reading these scenes. I admired the bravery and realism with which Jennings’ approaches this hugely emotive subject matter, be it the sheer physical fear that Gracie experiences, or in the uncompromising and brutally graphic depiction of the psyche of her abuser. Jennings’ neatly circumvents the clichéd  bogeyman images of paedophilia, but instead, presents a much more frightening depiction by the way she explores so fearlessly and thoroughly the mind-set of this deeply disturbed individual who brings fear and havoc to Gracie’s childhood. It takes the reader into the darkest recesses of psychopathy, and Jennings’ intuitive exploration of the conundrum of nature vs nurture is both deeply chilling, and strangely fascinating. The writing is emotionally intense, graphic and unceasingly honest.

As much as the novel focuses on the violence of Gracie’s childhood, Jennings’ harmonises this throughout with the simple pleasures of childhood friendships,  and increasing perception that both Gracie and Billy begin to experience of the world around them. There are childhood stories of make-believe, adventure, and Gracie’s flourishing interest in the world of books and poetry, that in tandem with her friendship with Billy, sustains her mental equilibrium, as the dark events of her household play out. It brings a beautifully weighted lightness, and emotional relief to the novel, that keeps the reader balanced and engaged, before the next plunge into the darker aspects of the book, and Jennings’ cleverly uses this part of Gracie’s development to change the nature of her narrative voice, and the images she ascribes to her tormentor’s presence. This is the only point where you can quite clearly hear a resonance of Jennings’ own authorial voice, as Gracie’s increasing appreciation of books and poetry, reflect what I believe is the author’s own joy and emotional succour afforded to us all by literature and verse. I found the scenes reflecting Gracie’s growing appreciation of this world of words and images strangely reminiscent of my own, and I’m sure many other readers too, and it was a delight.

This was without doubt an emotionally intense, but extremely rewarding reading experience, despite the harsh and quite often unpalatable depiction of a childhood destroyed. The language, imagery and controlled nature of Jennings’ writing was at times deeply unsettling in the portrayal of the darkness of Gracie’s experiences, and the psyche of her abuser,  but then uplifting in the purity and simplicity she attributes to Gracie’s discovery of the pleasures of storytelling and poetry that becomes her coping strategy. At times, an incredibly discomforting read, with a shockingly powerful denouement, but equally a brave, truthful, and thought-provoking novel. Highly recommended.

(With much thanks to the author for the ARC)

 

 

 

 

 

Blog Tour- Cal Moriarty- The Killing of Bobbi Lomax- Review

 

Former private eye turned debut novelist, Cal Moriarty, surprises and wrong-foots the reader at every turn in The Killing of Bobbi Lomax, her refreshingly different blend of police procedural and conspiracy thriller. She also succeeds admirably in giving reviewers a tough time in explaining the plot without giving anything away…

This is the first part of what Moriarty describes as a loose trilogy, takes us on a trip into the American religious heartland, setting her book in the god-fearing community of the fictional Abraham City in Canyon County. The story opens in 1983 with the death by incendiary of Bobbi Lomax, the much younger wife of Arnold Lomax, a prominent figure in the local church The Faith, which influences and controls every aspect of this small, quiet community. The investigation into her death is led by detectives Marty Sinclair and Alvarez, two former city cops relegated to this veritable backwater for reasons as yet unknown, and how local book dealer, Clark Houseman, a casualty of another bombing incident, (one of the three that occur in 24 hours) may, or may not, be linked to the central crime. The story then pivots between the present and a year previously taking us on a cerebral trip into the world of religious fundamentalism, and the counterfeiting of literary and religious documents, that expose the less than Christian underbelly of The Faith but,  just what has the bookish Houseman to do with it all, and could he really be a stone cold killer?

Obviously, any overt dwelling on the plot, would be detrimental to you, the reader, so I will just say that the labyrinthine plotting, and clever and surprising plot turns, work incredibly well throughout. This is a real novel of smoke and mirrors, particularly in the character of Houseman, who stands at the front and centre of this book, navigating the waters of religious fervour, and turning a quick buck. However, Moriarty neatly uses him as a prism, consistently presenting different versions of himself to not only his fellow protagonists but, also delighting the reader with the differing shades of his character. This more tricksy character is pitted against the solid characterisation of Sinclair and Alvarez, who although reminiscent of a couple of other detective duos I have encountered, admirably hold together the straight police procedural aspect of the plot, and I rather enjoyed the less well-drawn picture of their previous career, making me intrigued to find out more in future books. Likewise, Moriarty got me on side instantly with her playful probing of the nature of organised religion at work in the cult of The Faith and the moral outrage they display towards counter-church The Real Faith, and the characters within are as bullish and misguided as one would expect of two religions divided by the arcane concept of polygamy. As Houseman and our intrepid detectives, seek to infiltrate these groups for differing reasons, Moriarty plunges us deeper into the the secrets and lies these supposedly upright citizens are desperate to conceal to great effect, with a plausible and thoroughly enjoyable outcome.

This is an unerringly clever crime novel, packed with literary allusions, cold-blooded murder and sociological musings. Underpinned by the author’s familiarity with the location of the religious heartland of America, and the pivoting timeline Moriarty brings us a tale that tricks and surprises the reader, this is a welcome diversion from the more familiar tropes of crime fiction. An excellent read, with I’m delighted to say considering my nom de plume, with plenty of  Poe time too…

Cal Moriarty also writes for film and theatre, and previously worked as a private eye. She attended both the ‘Writing A Novel’ and ‘Edit Your Novel’ courses on the Faber Academy in 2012-13. Visit her website here and follow on Twitter @calmoriarty

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)