A Live Coal in the Sea (by Madeleine L'Engle)

When I read Madeleine L’Engle’s teenage novel ‘Camilla’ about a month ago, I commented at the end of the review that I found the ending rather inconclusive. I cared enough about the main character that I wanted to know what would happen. I hadn’t expected to discover it, so was very pleased when a friend told me that there’s a sequel, and lent it to me.

‘A Live Coal in the Sea’ is decidedly an adult rather than teenage novel. Camilla, who was in her teens in the first book, is now a grandmother in her fifties. The first chapter shows her receiving a special award for her work in astronomy, and introduces her adult son Taxi, who is an actor, and her daughter Frankie, who is an illustrator. Camilla has a student granddaughter too, Raffi, with whom she is very close; the daughter of Taxi and his wife.

However most of the story takes place in the past, in a series of flashbacks that move through Camilla’s life from the time when she was a student herself. The story is held together by conversations between Camilla and Raffi, who has been told something very disturbing by her father. There’s evidently some complex and rather murky secret in the family’s past, and Camilla decides that it’s time to speak out.

The book then gradually moves us forward through Camilla’s life, cleverly written so as to introduce a little of the story at the time. Every so often a little more time passes and we see her with Raffi again. It’s not entirely clear which sections are Camilla remembering, and which ones express what she actually talks about, but it doesn’t matter. The device works, even if the conversations between Camilla and Raffi are a bit stilted in places, and I found myself quickly drawn into the story, intrigued to find out how it would all fall into place.

While the blurb on the back calls this a ‘gripping and psychologically complex tale’, I didn’t find it tense or even particularly complicated, once I had become used to the switches in time. There are tangential comments about astronomy and simple number theory that I found interesting, but Camilla’s work mostly takes a back seat to her family life, and her relationship with her husband and extended family.

The characters are mostly three-dimensional and believable, and I found myself growing particularly fond of Camilla’s in-laws. It wasn’t a difficult read and I finished it in just a couple of days. Overall, I thought it a satisfying sequel which does, indeed, take the story forward and shows what happens in Camilla’s later life. Her close friend Luisa is also involved in the novel though the two are, inevitably, less close than they were as teenagers.

Older teens might enjoy this, but be warned that there there is some ‘adult’ content, including one particularly disturbing memory, and several rather frank discussions about sexuality. As with most of L’Engle’s books there’s a low-key Christian theme too, but it’s not pushy at all. The church is very much a part of Camilla’s life as she marries into a clerical family, so faith of some kind is taken for granted.

All in all, I liked this book very much.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

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