Coming Home to Island House (by Erica James)

I’ve been reading books by Erica James for nearly twenty years. Each time she publishes a new one, I add it to my wishlist as soon as it’s out in paperback. I did that with ‘Coming Home to Island House’ last year, and was delighted to be given it for Christmas. I have a lot of books on my to-read shelf, in addition to those I’m re-reading, but finally I started this novel a few days ago - and finished it this morning.

Erica James has a great gift of characterisation, and that’s immediately evident in ‘Coming Home to Island House’. Romily is the first person we meet, but we see her first from the perspective of three elderly gossips in the village. Romily is ‘fast’, and living a life of sin, according to these women. We also learn that she’s a novelist.

The year is 1939, and the whole book is set within the next couple of years, so the threat of war is already real. However, the village where Romily lives in a large house is still idyllic countryside, mostly peaceful, where everyone knows everyone else. Romily, we quickly discover, is secretly married to Jack Devereux; he’s considerably older than she is, and they were living together before that, despite the era. She’s on her way home after a European tour, and looking forward to seeing her husband again.

But a crisis happens, and Romily finds herself having to entertain Jack’s three adult children, and his niece Allegra. Arthur, the oldest, is not much younger than Romily. He is unimpressed to learn that he has a stepmother. He is a most unpleasant person who takes delight in tormenting his siblings, even as an adult. But we gradually learn why he’s so bitter and revengeful: it started when his mother died giving birth to her third child. Jack was not much of a father; he did what he could to support his children, but never showed any affection.

Hope, Jack’s middle child, has somewhat cut herself off from the family. She married Dieter, a German, and her father was very annoyed about it. Hope is now widowed, and caught up in grief. She’s been visiting her in-laws, and has been asked to do something which will change her life forever if she agrees. But she doesn’t see any way to refuse.

Then there’s Kit, a likeable young man who doesn’t have much ambition, and never felt good enough for his father. And Allegra, whose early childhood was miserable. She was then teased and tormented by her cousins, and treated rather badly by some of the household staff. She has not had a happy adult life recently, and has a secret which is beginning to scare her.

Within a few chapters I felt as if I knew all these very different folk, and was rooting for them to try to understand each other better. There are other people in the story: Florence, Romily’s maid, is important, as is Mrs Partridge, her housekeeper. Jack’s close friend and solicitor Roddy is significant, too. But perhaps my favourite character of all is Stanley, a young evacuee from London. He has had a neglectful and somewhat abusive past, but really doesn’t want to be in the countryside… his gentle blossoming under the caring treatment of the household is very moving.

I suppose there’s not a main plot as such, now I look back on the novel. It is composed of a series of subplots, nicely intertwining. There are some romantic threads, mostly quite low-key, as befits the era. The war becomes increasingly important as young men start to sign up or train for active service. But most significant is the way that Hope, Kit and Allegra start to understand each other a little better, and are able to become friends. None of them like Arthur, and he doesn’t seem able to be pleasant. He has some sordid secrets, and his marriage is not particularly happy. And yet I felt sorry for him, increasingly so as the story progressed.

There are some light-hearted moments, some shocking scenes (though none of them unexpected - there’s some good foreshadowing) and some moments of sheer pleasure. I found myself caught up in the family dramas, hoping for good outcomes, wanting to hug some of them, and tell others to stop being so dim. They all got under my skin one way or another, and while I could hardly put the book down by the time I was half-way through, I was sorry when it ended.

Definitely recommended to anyone who enjoys character-based women’s fiction which covers some quite serious issues.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

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