As happens with many books that I pick up, I started reading A Grave Inheritance for completely the wrong reasons – I’m a marketer’s nightmare – but I hope the author will be pleased to know that I ended up enjoying it for all the right ones!
I read this book because it’s by the mother of Joanne Phillips, another novelist that I’ve met online and whose blog I follow (I recently reviewed her book of short stories) and I was intrigued to find whether there’d be some sort of genetic resemblance in their writing. It also set me thinking about other famous pairs of authors who are related to each other. That idea’s bubbling under now and will give rise to another blog post soon – but here’s my verdict on A Grave Inheritance.
Firstly, I loved the cover: very soothing, very English, but with a teasingly ominous title and the suggestion of thunderclouds on the horizon. Reading the first few pages in a relaxed frame of mind at the end of the Christmas holidays, I initially expected it to be a sort of Famous Five meets Agatha Christie. Two innocent young girls inherit a pretty cottage in the countryside but are mystified by the locals’ hostile reception. Before long, after some skilful scene-setting, I found myself immersed in a much darker novel – indeed, jaw-droppingly grim in parts. The compelling recipe had me hooked, and I stayed up far later than I intended each night to read it, ending with a 1a.m. sprint finish because I couldn’t bear to go to bed without cracking that final 15% on my Kindle. (I do miss page numbers when I’m reading ebooks!)
The complicated plot interweaves two stories about the same families in the same setting a hundred years apart. The manor house and its tied worker’s cottage of the early plot have morphed into a nursing home and a “highly des res” in the modern storyline, speaking subtle volumes about the massive changes the last century has made to our society. (Boy, am I glad I live in the modern age!)
As the story unfolded in both time frames, it became very much bleaker, but even the hauntingly tragic episodes work well in the hands of Anne Renshaw’s balanced and unsentimental narrative. She is a natural storyteller, managing a large cast and a complex structure in a measured and digestible way, skilfully weaving in unexpected twists and turns.
This is her debut novel, and her style becomes defter as it progresses. She is very good at creating a sense of place, and I now have vivid, filmic images in my head of all the locations in the story. Her attention to detail occasionally got a bit too much for me (e.g. I’m happy to hear about a tea-tray being brought in rather than a tray with teapot, cups, plates, spoons, milk and sugar) and for me that put a slight brake on the action, but perhaps that’s just a question of personal taste.
There were also a couple of points of characterisation that I’d have liked spelled out a bit more e.g. why there is such a difference in character between the male twins – I was expecting a back story to that one that I never spotted (though maybe it was there and I missed it, due to reading far too late at night!)
But these are just tiny objections in the context of what is an impressive, ambitious and accomplished debut novel. I gather Anne Renshaw is already working on her second novel and I’m looking forward to reading that one too. So – like mother, like daughter!
Both Anne Renshaw and Joanne Phillips have author websites which are the best starting point for finding out more about their work. (Click their names to visit them.) These images are borrowed from these sites.
Although I read the Kindle version of A Grave Inheritance, a paperback is due out shortly. With numbered pages. 🙂