Saturday, August 25, 2018

Book review: The Letter by Kathryn Hughes

I was keen on doing a book review because it took me a while to remember the last time I did one! It bothers me that the daily grind of life leaves me with little to no time for reading. At the start of the year, I gave myself a feasible target of 15 literary books to finish by the end of the year. We are more than half way into 2018 and my dismal count stands at 4! Talk about unfulfilled reading goals 😒 At this rate, I don't think I can justify calling myself a bibliophile anymore. You could always argue that one could make time for something if you really wanted to and I wouldn't disagree with you. Case in point - my husband who easily goes through 40-60 books a year. Reading before going to bed is a habit I would like to cultivate but that time is mostly hijacked by Netflix! Since I have no intention of perfecting the art of procrastination, things need to change starting today 😁

This novel was recommended to my by my husband (of course). It has been written by English author Kathryn Hughes. The Letter, set in her hometown of Manchester was first published in 2013 and since then has become an International best-seller, capturing millions of hearts worldwide. 


Tina Craig's journey begins as a beautiful and self-assured young woman giving her fledgling marriage every chance to succeed. But after enduring unending physical and mental abuse at the hands of her volatile husband Rick, she becomes fearful and longs to escape. She puts in long hours at work and even volunteers at a charity shop on Sundays to seek respite the treadmill existence of misery at home. One day when going through the pockets of a second-hand suit, Tina comes across an old letter, one that was never posted. She opens the letter and reads it – a decision that will alter the course of her life forever.

Billy Stirling's carefree existence from an orphan to son of his doting adoptive mother turns into one of sheer bliss when he meets the love of his life, Christina Skinner. Unaffected by her draconian father's disapproval, their burgeoning relationship blossoms. But as fate would have it, circumstances tear the young lovers apart. Billy is aware of the blunder he committed, but desperately hopes to set things right. On 4th September 1939 he sits down to write the letter he hopes will change his future. It does – in more ways than he can ever imagine.

In his quest to trace his origins, William Lane crosses the Atlantic to track down his biological mother. Time and again he questions the wisdom of his endeavours but flashbacks to his childhood spurs him on. Destiny intervenes and his paths cross with a psychologically battered Tina. As the final pieces of the 34 year-old puzzle fall together, the reality of how one woman's devastation leads to another woman's salvation begins to emerge.

My thoughts....

The poignant novel operates on the moving themes of love, loss and hope. The historical 'romance'  (if you could call it that) sweeps the reader from Manchester to Ireland and then Vermont in time zones spread 34 years apart.

1939, as most people would be aware, marked the start of World War II. It was a time when young men were yanked from their families and forced to fight on foreign shores, young children were evacuated to stay with complete strangers, the threat of bombs hungover people's heads and tragedy became a way of life for many. Although the novel focuses mainly on events preceding the war, the magnitude and the after effects of the war are palpable. In contrast, the 1970s was a time of industrial unrest, raging inflation, strikes and power cuts. It was a time when serious issues like domestic abuse within a marriage was not even considered a crime. The author captures the essence of the bias, misguided judgement and struggles of both eras effectively. To someone from the 21st century, reading about the experiences of people who lived in times like these makes them marvel at the stoicism of ordinary folk in the face of adversity.

The two main female characters in the storyline experience tragedy of Shakespearean proportions in their lives. Chrissy and Tina are in many ways alike - they are level-headed and self-reliant yet naive and vulnerable. Their lives share a number of parallels including controlling men, missed opportunities, suppressed emotions, fallacious decisions, unexpected consequences and personal loss. Both characters are endearing and evoke a deep sense of compassion in the reader. The novel addresses certain issues like domestic violence, addiction, unwed motherhood and stillbirth which to a reader who has not personally experienced, is eye-opening (albeit extremely distressing). But the misery the two women are engulfed in doesn't break their spirit. They never heal completely but they learn to let go and embrace the good that the present has to offer. The melancholy draped in layers of optimism and positivity is what makes the story uplifting and brings a heartwarming sense of comfort to the reader.

The two main male characters Billy and William are enigmatic and charming in their own right but the reader is not as deeply invested in them compared to the female characters. They don't go through as much suffering in their lives and have it comparatively easier. It is mainly through Billy that we understand that a single action or decision can not only alter the course of your life but those of others too. 

Supporting characters like Jackie and Graham, unstinting in their loyalty and devotion, Clarke with his humility and quiet dignity and nurse Grace with her motherly compassion add humane touches to the story. And then there are the outright unlikeable characters like Rick, Dr. Skinner, Father Drummond and Sister Benedicta. The author even attempts to tap into why these characters act and behave the way they do which gives a tad more depth to their personality. 

Although Kathryn Hughes herself claims that she is not a prolific writer backed by a huge reservoir of work like most well-known authors, for a debut novel, I think she has done a fine job. The novel is skillfully written with conceptual dept, simple prose and a swift pace. The story is interesting and genuinely moving with well-developed characters that manage to leave an imprint on the reader. I found myself choking up and having to fight back a few tears during certain parts as I turned the pages. Even though the novel flits back and forth between present day and flashbacks, it keeps the reader engaged throughout. I love how the author has managed to confidently leap between time periods and deliver a beautifully interwoven story. I'll admit a few plots in the storyline seemed too convenient like they were there just to tie up the loose ends and bring a heartening sense of closure  but I am willing to ignore them in light of the fact that the novel appealed to me as a whole. Be forewarned that if you don't believe in miraculous coincidences, you might end up feeling like the storyline is a bit too contrived. 

I love reading books that have the ability to grab my attention enough so I can't put them down and linger long in the memory and this novel ticked both the boxes. This is an breezy and enjoyable read and I would readily recommend it. I am looking forward to reading more of Kathryn Hughes work. 

My rating for this book is


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