No modern thread this time, but the story covers two timeframes. 1803 and a young child – called Starling because of the flocks that accompany her arrival – wanders in from across the marshes, filthy and ill-treated, and is taken in by Alice Beckwith and treated as her sister. Alice is the ward of Lord Faukes, and knows nothing of her parentage. When her guardian visits he is often accompanied by his grandson Jonathan Alleyn, and the young couple fall in love. In 1821, Rachel Crofton escapes life as a governess by marrying wine merchant Richard Weekes, and becomes the companion of Jonathan Alleyn, recently returned from the Peninsular War and now a recluse, driven to madness by everything he’s experienced and Alice’s disappearance. Starling works in the Alleyn household, convinced that Jonathan killed the woman who saved her life.
Two of Katherine Webb’s books featured in my Top Ten from 2012 – The Unseen and A Half Forgotten Song. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her latest – unusually for me (I have an aversion to heavy hardbacks…) I read it in the traditional way rather than on my Kindle, and loved every single one of its 531 wonderful pages.
The story threads unwind in a totally compelling way – this is a story full of secrets and lies, treachery and cruelty, with twists and turns and revelations that keep you feverishly turning the pages. Rachel and Starling are both fascinating and likeable characters, and I grew to really care about them as they lived their lives and pursued the truth about Alice’s disappearance.
Others have said that this is a big book that doesn’t feel like a big book – I was quite mesmerised by the story that unfolded and really struggled to make myself set it aside and leave the life of its characters, so desperate was I to find out the truth. This was wonderful story telling, rich with descriptions of the period – and the descriptions of Jonathan’s wartime experiences leave enduring and horrifying images – plainly meticulously researched and intricately plotted. I really can’t praise it highly enough – Katherine Webb is most certainly going to feature in my Top Ten of 2013 too.
The Misbegotten is published by Orion Books, and is currently available in hardback and for Kindle: the paperback version is due for release on 7th November 2013.
Katherine Webb was born in 1977 and grew up in Hampshire before reading History at Durham University. She has since spent time living in London and Venice, and now lives near Bath. Having worked as a waitress, au pair, personal assistant, bookbinder, housemaid, library assistant and seller of fairy costumes, she is now a full-time writer. Her debut novel, The Legacy, won the popular vote for the TV Book Club Summer Read 2010 and was shortlisted for Best New Writer at the 2010 Galaxy National Book Awards. Her subsequent novels The Unseen and A Half Forgotten Song were both Sunday Times Top Ten Bestsellers, and her books have been translated into 23 languages around the world.