Jess has made a series of bad life choices and all have let her down. Escaping London, she sets out to recreate herself in the idyllic countryside, and this time she wants to get it right! She wants to lead a responsible, tranquil life with her young son Rory, but soon discovers stresses which pull her in opposing directions – conflict over a new bypass, between friends, and worst of all, between lovers.
Educated, experienced, and pragmatic, James is a widowed farmer whose opinions differ from, and enrage, Jess. His young shepherd, Danny, is an uneducated and inexperienced idealist. Jess is attracted to them both, and realizes if she wants her idyllic countryside life to survive, she must choose her Mr Right.
The only problem is – which one is he?
You might well remember that earlier this year, I had the immense pleasure of discovering the writing of Gilli Allan. On that occasion, the book was Life Class – you’ll find my review here. I did go on a bit – about the fact that Gilli had written “the kind of story that I wanted to read”, and how wonderful it was to be able to identify with her characters, people who are a little flawed, and who had lived a little. So it was with eager anticipation that I picked up another of Gilli Allan’s books, Torn, published by Accent Press in December 2014.
Torn is a very different book from Life Class – a little less comfortable to read at times, the main character perhaps a tad less attractive, a little less easy to like. Reading the book’s description, the book’s opening scenes surprised me – a drunken morning after, followed by a graphic description of the central character, Jess, being attacked by her former partner in a pub car park.
But then we get to know Jess and her young son Rory, and discover someone who has spent her life making wrong choices. She has a lot of hard edges, a spikiness that won’t immediately appeal to everyone – but as the detail of her former life emerges, she slowly changes from a character you’re really not too sure about to someone you desperately hope will make the right choices this time. I’ll admit that I did like her from the start – this author doesn’t write “characters”, she draws real people with all their flaws and nasty bits, and I recognised someone who’d made bad mistakes and needed to learn to love herself again.
The two men between whom she finds herself choosing are very different. Danny is, of course, totally unsuitable for her, with his gentleness and naivety, and absence of either education or material possessions – and he’s considerably younger. But there’s a strong physical attraction – and that’s often how Jess makes her choices. And James, the landowner, isn’t all he immediately appears to be either – again, the physical attraction makes a cantankerous and aggressive boor a proposition Jess is happy to consider. I’m slipping into telling the story, and I don’t want to do that: this book is perhaps less about the story, and more about the development of the individuals who are part of it. All three have real depth, with unexpected facets emerging as they slowly dance around each other.
The supporting cast is equally strong. I particularly liked Gilda, James’ mother who provides his home anchor. Jess’ young son, Rory, is simply wonderful, with a beautiful relationship with his mother and the ability to steal every scene and provide many of the lighter moments. And there are so many others – including some excellent cameos like the itinerant juggler at a birthday party and the owner of the hardware store.
I really like the way Gilli Allen writes – easy to read in many ways, but with the ability to take you by surprise, to keep you on edge, to surprise you with moments of tenderness and flashes of anger. Her descriptive powers are excellent – the setting of this book is vividly real, to the point that I was almost ready to pick up a placard and protest about the plans to drive a bypass through it. Her ease with dialogue makes you feel you’re witnessing a real conversation. And I must mention, too, that she writes some of the best sex scenes I’ve come across – not the candlelight and violins, but the awkwardness and the messy bits that make it real and recognisable. And this most certainly isn’t just a love story, a matter of simple choice between two men and the prospect of a happy ever after: although it does work at that level, the author juggles a number of really challenging themes and unexpected issues along the way.
This really isn’t a book you simply read, although it hooks you in and keeps you turning the pages as its characters drive the story: it’s a book you explore, as the characters slowly reveal themselves, and one that affects you quite deeply at an emotional level. The ending has you on the edge of your seat, but, at the same time, it tears at your heart.
My review is of a purchased copy of Torn – that remained in the depths of my kindle for far too long…
Gilli Allan visited Being Anne in November of last year – you’ll find our conversation here.
You can follow Gilli on Twitter, through her Facebook author page or her Amazon author page: she also has an excellent blog.