08/05/2005

The Children's Hour (by Marcia Willett)

I've read almost everything by Marcia Willett, and while I loved some of her books, I was less than impressed by the one prior to this ('Forgotten Laughter') so I approached this one with a little uncertainty. Was it going to be another with a confused time-line, too much 'telling' rather than 'showing', too much unecessary information about the characters?

I have to say I was drawn in almost immediately. The main focus of the story is two elderly sisters, Mina and Nest. Mina is the elder, and is a delightful caring type of person who has looked after her wheelchair-bound sister since an accident that killed another sister some years previously. Their lives are about to be disrupted by the arrival of yet another sister, Georgie, who appears to be starting Alzheimer's disease.

Georgie, it becomes clear, isn't a very likeable person and both Mina and Nest are concerned that she's going to let out some secrets from their past. The book then unfolds gently, with the secrets being gradually unfolded. There are inevitably many flashbacks to their childhood and early adult life, but rather than being intrusive or annoying, they work extremely well. Instead of the more normal, and awkward pluperfect tense, Marcia Willett adopts the present tense in the memories or dreams from the past, a clever way of making it seem more real.

There are young people in the book too, particularly Lyddie, a favourite neice, who is married to someone that neither Mina nor Nest like very much. Her story is intertwined with theirs, as are many other subplots and several dogs!

I found the characters believable, and the story often moving. It's not a short novel (440 pages) but I read it in about three days; once I'd started, I could barely put it down.

Marcia Willett has sometimes been compared to Rosamunde Pilcher; I've tended to feel that's a bit of an exaggeration as far as her previous books go. But in 'The Children's Hour' she did seem to reach those heights, both in the writing and in the plotting. There are some surprises as the 'secrets' are revealed, as well as some which were fairly easily guessed.

The ending wasn't quite what I expected, yet it was sensitively done and left open a hopeful future for all involved. I had half-guessed one of the outcomes revealed towards the end, yet not the way the plot was going to go.

All in all, I rate this very highly - and definitely one of this author's best; the only other comparable one is 'A Week in Winter'.

(I've now written another review of 'The Children's Hour' after re-reading four and a half years later)

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