Precious Time (by Erica James)

I came across Erica James almost by chance, when someone gave me one of her books for Christmas a few years ago. I liked it sufficiently to ask relatives for others, and even to buy one or two myself. The only one I didn't like so much was 'The Holiday', which seemed to me more like an average holiday romance 'chick-lit' book than a family saga. It almost put me off completely.

However I'm very glad that I gave Erica James' books another chance. I thought 'Precious Time' to be a delightful book.

Clara, a single mother, decides to take her four-year-old son Ned travelling in a camper van, so they can spend some time together before he starts school. After a few weeks of travelling and exploration, they arrive in the town of Deaconsbridge, and gradually get caught up in the lives of some of the residents.

They first meet the crusty old Gabriel Liberty, who rescues them from potential attackers, and then involves them in a charade to keep the social services away from him. Despite herself, Clara agrees to pretend to be related to him, and ends up cleaning his disgusting kitchen. Ned, meanwhile, sees beyond the irritable exterior to the sensitive old man underneath.

The other main character who meets and becomes friendly with Clara is Archie Merryman, an antique dealer. Their lives all become intertwined in believable ways, with plot and sub-plots moving together to the enjoyable - although not entirely unexpected - conclusion.

Characterisation is where Erica James shines. She has a gift of bringing people to life, and making the reader care about them. I related to Clara almost immediately: as a mother who also worried about time rushing by when my children were small, I could totally understand the reasons why she decided to give up her job and devote a few months to her son.

Gabriel Liberty is also a very well-drawn character, making himself deliberately unpleasant to all around him, suspicious of social services, determined to be independent - and yet sensitive and lonely underneath. The way he's drawn out initially by Ned, and later by Clara, is both moving and realistic, and there are some amusing moments too.

I found Ned to be one of the less rounded characters, which was a pity in a way as he was so central to the plot, but as most of the issues were adult ones this didn't matter over-much. I found him to be a bit of a caricature of a small boy - not unbelievable, but with not as much depth as some of the others. Still, it's a minor niggle.

What lifted this novel above many, for me, was the unusual start to the story, and the relationship between Clara and Ned. Not many mothers are in the position of being able to give up work and take off into the blue, particularly not single mothers - but part of the enjoyment of a novel, for me, is escapism.

I also found that there were some very thought-provoking, albeit low-key messages in the book. The obvious one being that time is precious, that children grow up fast, and that there's a lot more education in travelling and meeting people than in sitting in a nursery school playing with coloured blocks. In these days of ever-increasing early schooling, it was refreshing to read about someone resisting the norm and treating her child as special.

In addition, I loved the gradual change of Gabriel Liberty from crusty and dour into a grandfatherly and caring person. His own children had more-or-less written him off, and it took some strangers - in particular a small child - to see underneath his rough exterior to the lost and lonely man underneath.

All in all, an utterly delightful book. Very highly recommended.

(My slightly longer review of 'Precious Time' can be found on the Ciao site)

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