Wickham Hall (by Cathy Bramley)

On a recent trip to the UK, I was browsing a charity shop when I saw a carousel with women’s fiction novels at a pound each. I picked up four that looked interesting, based both on the blurb and the cover, although I had not previously read anything by three of the authors. One of the books was ‘Wickham Hall’ by Cathy Bramley, an author I had not previously come across. I started reading it on my flight back to Cyprus a few days ago.

I was immediately drawn into the story. Holly narrates the book; she’s a highly organised young woman who applies for a job as assistant event manager at a stately home. She’s visited it several times with her mother, and it’s her dream job… so it’s no surprise (given the title) when she’s offered the job. She’s rather thrown in at the deep end, as her boss Pippa isn’t there on her first morning, but she gets on remarkably well and is clearly competent in her new role.

Holly’s mother is a hoarder - of all kinds of things, much to Holly’s dismay. She likes a clutter-free, streamlined life, but can barely get into their shared house due to piles of random things that her mother cannot possibly get rid of. This is an ongoing source of conflict which takes a significant part in the plot as it progresses.

It’s very much a character-driven novel, covering about six months of Holly’s new job, and involving quite a number of different people. She gets along well with most of her colleagues, other than the gift shop manager Andy, who had hoped to be offered the post as assistant event manager, and treats her with hostility from the start. However it never really escalates into anything too serious; when it comes to a head, after a near tragedy, Andy turns out to be quite a reasonable, likeable guy after all.

Writing books say that there must be ongoing and significant conflict in a novel, and it’s something I struggle to create, so it was very reassuring and encouraging to read this book. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and it’s highly rated in reviews elsewhere - yet the conflict, such as it is, is pretty low-key. Holly has to learn to let go of some of her insistence on structure and organisation, but it turns out to be easier than she expected. The conflict with her mother evaporates as her mother gets help with her obsession and meets a new man. Holly has questions and worries about her unknown father, but that all gets resolved in a satisfactory way.

There’s a love interest for Holly, but despite an initial misunderstanding and some embarrassment, and notwithstanding a miscommunication in the middle, and a snooty parent, everything progresses happily without too much stress. Indeed, it’s a very readable book partly because the tension levels are so low. Yet it was sufficiently interesting that I wanted to know what was happening, and found it difficult to put down.

‘Wickham Hall’ was apparently published initially as a four-part serial, and I can see that it would have worked well. The book I read is complete but divided into four sections; each of the first three ends with a question and something of a cliff-hanger. However I’m very glad that I had the whole thing, so I could finish it in a few days. I was quite sorry when it ended; several of the characters had got under my skin, and I felt as if I were saying goodbye to friends.

I particularly appreciated the lack of bad language and the absence of any ‘intimate’ scenes. There is nothing stronger than kissing, and most of that is fairly quick, with interruptions. At the end of the book we see a glimpse of a ‘morning after’ but there is no unnecessary detail. I found this family-friendly level of writing refreshing and look forward to lending the book to friends.

At the end, as with several other books I’ve read in recent years, there is a selection of recipes relevant to the story. They all look good…

I would recommend this highly to anyone who likes light women’s fiction with a strong main character. It’s a ‘feel-good’ encouraging story of human relationships which appealed on many levels.

As soon as I’d finished the book, I went immediately to Amazon to put more of Cathy Bramley’s books on my wishlist.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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