25/11/2013

Beatrice (by Noëlle Harrison)

I first came across Noélle Harrison over six years ago, when I was sent her novel ‘A Small Part of Me’ by The Bookbag site. I enjoyed the book very much, and decided to look out for more of her work. This proved harder than expected - she is not a prolific writer - but one of my relatives managed to find a copy of ‘Beatrice’ for my birthday, earlier in the year.

It’s the story of a young woman who went missing. Beatrice left behind various objects - a necklace, a scarf, a sketchbook and more - and the novel is loosely structured around each one of these, as they are discovered after her disappearance.

Actually, though, it's the story of three connected women. The main protagonist is Beatrice’s younger sister Eithne, who misses her sister badly but is also angry with her for having gone. We see Eithne both in the present time of the book - in her thirties, happily married - and in the past, gradually learning who she is, and why she cares so deeply.

The second protagonist is Sarah, Beatrice and Eithne’s mother. She came from an impoverished family, and went to work as a maid in a wealthy household. Her sections of the book take us right back to the time when she escaped from her family, and started to learn about life and love - or lack of love - and made some choices which she later regrets.

Then there’s Beatrice herself, a rather shadowy young woman. I tried to work out in the early chapters whether or not she was still around, and whether she was going to return. I evidently wasn’t meant to know - it made me a little uncomfortable, but then I realised that somehow the author made me feel just a fraction of what Sarah and Eithne would have been feeling over the years.

There are many subplots, weaving in and out, pulling past and present closer together. I can’t say I was deeply moved, but I certainly felt involved. There were some rather sordid parts which I didn’t particularly like; nothing highly explicit, but plenty of subject matter that would make me reluctant to recommend this to a teenager, but for the most part the story drew me in more and more as I read.

I did have some gaps of reading, and found it all too easy to forget the names of minor characters, some of whom were quite two-dimensional - not that it mattered. There was drama and excitement and hope.. and then an epilogue which answered some questions but which I didn’t particularly like. Still, it did at least bring some closure.

On the whole I’d recommend it as a gentle book with some very hard-hitting, even shocking sections that are surprisingly matter-of-fact in the telling.

Recommended in a low-key way. Out of print for a while, this now seems to be in print again, at least in the UK, and it can occasionally be found second-hand. It's also available for the Kindle on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews

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