Hazel McHaffie

Books, lists and preparations

Yesss! I had no less than three good excuses for sitting down for hours with a book In December, when I really should have been busy ticking things off the to-do list glaring at me from my desk. Three cast iron excuses to boot. 1. I’d just had a wisdom tooth extracted, and was under instruction to take things easy for a couple of days. 2. The roads were treacherous with snow and ice making it inadvisable to venture out. 3. The author of the said book is Linda Gillard, and after the year she’s had, I was keen to review her book before Christmas. Which reminds me … 4. The book’s set at Christmas time so the mood was exactly right for reading it in December.

House of SilenceHouse of Silence is Linda’s fourth novel, and although it once again features mental illness and dysfunctional families, it’s otherwise very different from the three earlier ones I’ve read. Good start. As you know, I’m somewhat allergic to formulaic writing.

Gwen Rowland is a wardrobe assistant for film and television productions. She’s good at it too. But she’s alone in the world.

Aunt Sam did booze, Sasha did drugs, and my Uncle Frank did men – boys if he could get them. This unholy trinity went down like ninepins in the ’90s, martyrs to over-indulgence. All three died tragically young of, respectfully, cirrhosis of the liver, a drugs overdose and AIDS … My mother, fond as she was of cliches, would have said, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” And Sasha did.

Since the death of her mother, Gwen has dreaded Christmas with its appalling memories, and essential loneliness. So she finds it hard to understand why actor-boyfriend Alfie Donovan is reluctant to take her to Norfolk for his family celebrations. He has no choice but to go; it’s his duty to visit his mother and sisters. But why isn’t he appreciative of the richness of his own privilege – not just relatives, but a stately Elizabethan-manor-house home, and celebrity? Why isn’t he keen to share it?

Eventually Gwen wangles an invitation, though Alfie predicts it’ll be her ‘second-worst Christmas‘ ever. She warms instantly to the practical but eccentric sister Viv, and the scatty but creative Hattie, who still live at Creake Hall, but she grows increasingly disturbed by the changes in Alfie. Where is the family affection? What has made Rachel Holbrook, renowned children’s author, and their mother, hide in her room, granting only occasional audiences to visitors? Who is the mysterious gardener, Marek Zbydniewski, who sees right into Gwen’s soul? And what exactly is Hattie trying to tell her?

The cold and cavernous house is full of photographs and portraits, but they aren’t what they purport to be either. The sisters offer explanations for some of the discrepancies, but Gwen is growing increasingly mistrustful of everything about this family. Things just don’t add up. Who are they? And what secrets are they concealing? As she works on one of Hattie’s unfinished patchwork quilts, Gwen unravels more confusion and mystery that take her into a labyrinth of such complexity that the reader has to keep readjusting his or her own compass.

We’ve come to expect richness and depth in her characters from this author, who combines a light touch with thorough attention to detail. This time the layers of authenticity come from psychology, quilting, gardening, writing, acting, music. And although the underlying tale takes us into dark places of the mind, there’s plenty of light and shade, with eccentricities and humour providing the contrast and lifting the spirits.

So, the verdict? I enjoyed the book greatly. No difficulty sitting tight for a day and a half. Although, to be ultra-pernickety, I confess I’d personally have preferred a less tidied-up ending, and far fewer exclamation marks …! Sorry, Linda, but your prose is strong enough not to need them.

OK, review posted, now I can get back to that to-do list.

Decorate the house …decorated fireplaceWrap parcels …parcelsBake cakes … mull wine … Relax! I’m not going to bore you with humdrum domesticity. No, only wish you all peace and happiness whatever the season means to you.

 

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2 Responses to “Books, lists and preparations”

  • Thanks for this review, Hazel. Very interesting that you mention the tidy ending – and I agree! That ending was written to appease my then-publisher. I’d been under enormous pressure to impose a happy & tidy ending on STAR GAZING, my previous novel and I’d refused, leaving it rather open. So I tried to keep them happy with HOUSE OF SILENCE. But even though they’d read half the book when they commissioned it, they asked for a complete re-write when they read the finished manuscript. They said it wasn’t enough of a romance. (It was never intended to be a romance.) I refused to re-write (essentially dumb the book down) and I eventually published it myself on Kindle where it became a bestseller.

    I’m not defending myself against fair criticism here, as I’m sure you realise, but I did wonder if it might interest (and shock?) your readers to know how much pressure auuthors are under to make a book conform to editorial expectations. I often read reviews on Amazon complaining about feeble/unlikely endings of books and I always wonder, “Was that the ending the author wrote or was it one that was imposed?…”

    Most authors do as they’re told. I’m yet to hear of anyone doing what I did – withdraw a ms rather than compromise the book. At the time I was aware I was probably committing professional suicide. (My publisher declined to read my next novel and we parted company.) Fortunately my agent backed me to withdraw the book, so I was convinced my editor must be wrong.

    Amazon selected HOUSE OF SILENCE as one of their Top Ten Best of 2011 in the Indie Author category, so I feel I did the right thing. But it wasn’t easy.

    • Hazel says:

      Great to get this insight into your authorial perspective, Linda.Thanks for taking the trouble to comment, and I’m glad you agreed with my slight reservation. You must surely feel vindicated given the soaring success of House of Silence. Keep writing!

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