1 August 2017

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik

While browsing the display tables and shelves of London's bookshops, I was hoping to find another story like The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.  Not a replica of the characters, setting or plot, but something matching its tone of fresh mixed with nostalgia.  Something well-written and atmospheric.  When Rachel (Book Snob) mentioned she was reading Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, I asked her if it was good.  Little did I know just how perfectly it would fit the bill.

The prologue reveals two characters, the first is a woman scanning the landscape through a cottage window.  The second is a woman on the verge of freedom outside the gates of Holloway prison.

The story begins during the summer of 1940 in rural England, on the edge of the Downs.  The family farm is being solely run by Elsie, the last member of her family willing or able to do so.  Being something of a gentle soul, the calmness of empty lanes and rolling hills provide the perfect setting for Elsie.  The extra help supplied by Land Girls is necessary but the idea of sharing the space and view is far from relished.  The next recruit, Rene Hargreaves, is about to arrive.

Miss Hargreaves background is more complex than Elsie's.  Breaking free from a marriage to a man with a gambling addiction meant housing her children with relatives.  To walk away from a marriage is one thing, but to walk away from small children is akin to one of the harshest crimes committed by a woman.  With her past kept as a closely guarded secret, Rene begins a new phase of her life as an independent woman and Elsie's partner.  A relationship soon flourishes between the two and they become inseparable.

A promise to return the favour of help when it's needed most brings the past flooding back to Rene with dire consequences.

In one of those fabulously lucky circumstances, part of this story is set in Winchester.  As descriptions of the city centre are mentioned I'm reminded of my time spent there only three weeks ago.  My day in Winchester was sunny and bright but Malik paints a picture of dreary and relentless rain.

'Ventilation was poor and the damp atmosphere held on to every smell: there was a heady whiff of breakfast fry and strong, sweet tea. fresh tobacco and late-night booze along with the tang of curious chemical compounds:  mothballs and Coty, Camay and hair oil'.

It would have been easy to sensationalize the story of Elsie Boston and Rene Hargreaves, but there is none of that here.  It's a beautiful story with a bite; a slow simmer that turns into something of a boil.  And to learn that it's based in reality adds to the fascination - Rene Hargreaves is the author's grandmother.  Blending fact with fiction, Rachel Malik has produced a wonderful debut novel that ticked all sorts of boxes and I certainly hope she's going to keep writing.

Thanks for recommending this book, Rachel (Book Snob)...I loved it!


   Train Landscape by Eric Ravilious, 1939

15 comments:

  1. Everyone loves this book! I'm looking forward to reading it now.

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    1. Find it - read it. You'll love it, Audrey....I promise!

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  2. Replies
    1. And I'm so glad you spotted it! How annoying that it's nowhere to be seen here yet. Thanks again, Rachel!

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  3. Hi there, this looks like a goodie. Please bring this over to Books You Loved: August so everyone can see it. Cheers from Carole's Chatter

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  4. That must be London's flagship Oxfam shop, Darlene!

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    1. Always a treasure trove, Mary. Bloomsbury and books - it's a little bit of heaven.

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  5. I'm obviously going to have to read this one! It looks like we might be doing it for a future podcast ep...

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    1. Oh please do, Simon! You and Rachel might agree on a topic....can't wait to find out.

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    1. Mystica...always a pleasure! Keep your eye open for a copy, it's lovely.

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  7. I like that painting with the White Horse and the books sounds good.

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    1. If you like the painting I really hope you were inspired to look at some of Ravilious's other works - they're beautiful. But Train Landscape does make me want to book a train ticket....

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  8. Hi there, it's Rachel Malik here. Thank you so much for the review of Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves. I'm so glad you enjoyed the book. I see that you're a fan of The Odd Women - me too! Best wishes and thanks. I'm just about to tweet a link to the review. Best wishes, Rachel

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  9. Lovely of you to stop by, Rachel! The Odd Women is one of those books I see on second-hand shelves and immediately feel the need to tell someone else nearby 'here's a good one!'. And I'm so glad my friend, Book Snob, did the same thing with your book - it's wonderful! Looking forward to whatever you write next....

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