An elderly woman sees a sign she has been awaiting and prepares to take her last walk, across the snowy marshes and into the sea. She imagines the freezing water creeping up her legs, planning how she will use her walking stick, loading her pockets with stones from the garden wall. And then she realises she has the wrong day, it is New Year’s Eve tomorrow, not today and she is a day too early. When a stranger appears, her plans are disrupted and the past must be faced. Call of the Curlew by Elizabeth Brooks has the most fantastic sense of place. It is a haunting, atmospheric read that I didn’t want to put down. Tollbury Marsh is an ever-present character in the story too, quiet, empty, natural and ‘where a body could sink under that earth, slowly and inexorably, like an insect in a pot of glue.’
Virginia Wrathmell arrives at Salt Winds, a house on the edge of the marshes, as a newly adopted orphan when she is ten. It is New Year’s Eve 1939. Her new parents, Clem and Lorna, seem ill at ease together and Virginia watches them from the banisters, trying to understand the adult tension which dominates the house. When a neighbour visits, Virginia takes an instant dislike to the way Max Deering’s eyes linger on her and this first impression of him does not improve as the weeks pass. The catalyst for change comes when a German fighter plane crashes on the marshes and Clem sets out with rope and torch to help. The wartime story is spliced with Virginia in 2015, her plans to wade into the marshes on hold. Slowly the mystery is unveiled; of what happened in the war that left such a lasting mark on Virginia so many decades later.
This is the first novel by Brooks that I have read. She writes with a poetic description that is engaging, particularly when describing the marshes and the natural world. ‘The stars were starting to poke through the sky, like silver pins through lilac silk.’ But she also writes with an eye to mystery and is adept at tantalising the reader. This is not a thriller, I hesitate to call it a mystery because the pacing is not intense. Rather this is an elegiac read about a delicate new family in wartime facing situations that would split apart the strongest of people.
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