Sun on Snow (by Alexandra Raife)

I've enjoyed all the books I've read by Alexandra Raife, who was recommended to me many years ago by a relative. After twelve novels, the last one in 2004, she apparently stopped writing so I'm now gradually re-reading them, interspersed with other favourite authors.  The one I've just finished is 'Sun on Snow.

Allt Farr in Scotland is the location of the novel, with most of the action taking place in or around a large, dilapidated and decidedly chilly mansion belonging to the Munro family. The matriarch, known to all her family as ‘Grannie’ is slowing down, suffering aches and pains; yet decidedly acerbic and opinionated. She can’t be more than about sixty-five, and she works hard around the house and farm; yet at times she seems decidedly older.

Grannie has three adult offspring. Harriet, in her early forties, is single, hard-working, always trying to do the best for everybody, and driving them to distraction in the process. Joanna, a few years younger, is a widow with a daughter, Laura, who is about eleven. And their younger brother Max is grumpy and outspoken, yet very loyal, extremely hard-working, and determined to shoulder full responsibility for everyone and everything.

Into their lives comes Kate: the cast-off girlfriend of Jeremy, a close family friend. Kate is fragile, gentle, and newly pregnant. She has been thrown out by her parents and has nowhere else to go. The Munro family are not expecting her to be educated and intelligent; nor is it easy for them to accept someone who is willing to do anything, but has little strength. Kate arrives in the middle of a snowstorm, and everything seems like an utter nightmare…

The novel (which is called ‘Until the Spring’ in the US) is, essentially, about what happens as Kate’s gentleness gradually infiltrates the lives and hearts of the family, and many of those around them. The bohemian and very busy life she discovers in Allt Farr is a stark contrast to her former life, warm and cosy with plenty to eat, but no honest discussion, no way of making mistakes without being berated, and no emotional support. Nobody expects to like her much, nor for her to stay beyond a few weeks; but, gradually, she becomes the catalyst for a great many changes.

Alexandra Raife has drawn some realistic characters, with a light touch here and there to soften the picture she draws of a hard life for the whole family, all pooling time and resources to keep the farm and guesthouses going. There are social events regularly, surprising Kate with their spontaneity and warmth; there is a welcome from all the neighbours and friends, a few of whom were main characters in earlier novels by this author. It’s a character-drawn novel, covering the space of less than a year; yet a lot happens in that time.

I’m not sure why I liked it so much; the romantic outcome was fairly obvious from the start, but it’s very low-key and there are many other storylines interwoven, with unexpected turns here and there. I first read this book nearly fourteen years ago, and had forgotten everything except that I had enjoyed it.

There’s a dramatic climax, believable in that it’s rather obvious foreshadowed and predicted, but since it forces everyone to re-think their priorities and re-examine their desires, I’m not sure anything else would have worked. The author doesn’t make the mistake of tidying up every single loose end in the final chapters; some plans are left open. But she doesn’t stop too suddenly, either; important storylines are resolved, and it’s a hopeful, encouraging ending.

The cast is quite large, although I mostly remembered who was whom. There are some poignant, even shocking moments here and there, and discussion of some difficult issues. But it’s all very well done, and I would recommend this novel highly to anyone who enjoys character-driven women’s fiction that isn’t just a simple romance.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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