The Legacy (by Katherine Webb)

I didn’t know anything about Katherine Webb when her novel was recommended to me by Amazon some years ago. But I liked the blurb and the reviews, and it sounded like the kind of book I would enjoy. I put it on my wishlist, and one of my family bought it for me… to my astonishment, nearly five years ago. I knew it had been on my to-read shelf for some time, but had no idea it was that long.

I’m glad that I finally decided to read ‘The Legacy’. It’s an absorbing book. It takes place in two different time periods: the present (presumably early 21st century, as this was first published in 2010) and the early part of the 20th century: from 1902-1905. The prologue is set in 1905: a young woman called Caroline decides to abandon a baby, one whom she clearly cares about. We have no idea why this happens, or what her relationship is to the baby, and this intrigued me for most of the book.

Caroline’s story gradually unfolds: we meet her next in 1902, orphaned and living with her strict aunt in the United States. Her life is rigidly controlled, but she has met and fallen in love with a farmer who lives out on the prairies. Caroline is determined to marry him, despite the fact that it will mean leaving everything she knows and having to learn to cook and keep house in fairly primitive conditions.

Interspersed with Caroline’s story, which takes us through her life over the next couple of years, the present day story features Erica (who writes in the first person) and her older sister Beth. They are probably in their thirties, and have just inherited an old family mansion; we quickly learn that their great-grandmother was a strange, often confused and angry woman called Caroline - presumably the same one.

Erica and Beth have secrets of their own; Beth has suffered from depression, and clearly has something in her past that she wants to forget. Erica, by contrast, wants to remember. She’s also intrigued by the more distance past, when she finds some old letters, and a photograph of Caroline as a young woman, and an unknown baby…

It’s well written, the story gradually unfolding in both time frames. It wasn’t too hard to keep track of characters, once I’d realised how it worked, and the difference in style (past tense/third person for the early 1900s) made it easy enough to switch although it was sometimes a slight jar when I become quite involved in one or other of the unfolding storylines. I thought the way that the secrets came to light, with a few twists and turns along the way, was cleverly and neatly done.

In places the writing was perhaps a bit long-winded; I wanted the middle section to hurry by a bit more, as not much happened. But by the final third of the book I was gripped, guessing things I was evidently supposed to guess, not expecting things that were, nevertheless, believable in context.

The characterisation wasn’t particularly deep. I didn’t feel any real emotional connection to anyone, and thought some of Caroline’s actions in her part of the story were a bit unlikely, as was her gradual descent into coldness and unpleasantness. One or two parts of the story were a bit frustrating, too; I’d like to have seen some more positive resolutions to a couple of the threads.

Nonetheless, it’s a thought-provoking story that paints a fascinating picture of life on the prairies, contrasted strongly both with debutante life in the city, and modern-day country living. Changing attitudes to minority groups were also shown, almost in passing, in a way that feels real.

Recommended to anyone who likes women’s fiction with some depth and a historical aspect.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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