1913. Unmarried sisters Nellie and Vivian Marsh live an impoverished existence in a tiny cottage on the banks of the Little River in Suffolk. Their life is quiet and predictable, until a sudden flood throws up a strange fish on their doorstep and a travelling man who will change them forever.
1939. Eighteen-year-old Birdie Farr is working as a barmaid in the family pub in London. When she realises she is pregnant she turns to her mother Nellie, who asks her sister to arrange an adoption for Birdie’s new born daughter. But as the years pass Birdie discovers she cannot escape the Marsh sisters’ shadowy past – and her own troubling obsession with finding her lost daughter will have deep consequences for all of them…
I really enjoyed Amanda Hodgkinson’s first novel, 22 Britannia Road, and wrote that I was eagerly awaiting her next – and I was certainly not disappointed in any way. The beautiful writing – the almost cinematic descriptions, the gentle style – is even more fully developed, and this was a simply wonderful read.
The story follows the sisters Nellie and Vivian through their lives – from 1913 through to the early sixties – from their early lives in the isolated Suffolk cottage, through their married lives and into old age, picking up the stories of their children and grandchildren along the way. The whole story is overshadowed by an immense secret the sisters share – a really heartbreaking one, connected to their meeting the travelling man – and which always has the potential of being uncovered. This is a story that swirls through time – several of the characters face similar issues across the years, but the ways they’re dealt with are different because of the changing social standards.
Both Vivian and Nellie are quite fascinating characters, the products of their unusual early lives and upbringing, making choices around alliances and relationships that change the course of their lives. I loved Birdie too – she’s vividly drawn, makes her own difficult choices, and there are times when your heart really breaks for her. There’s a wonderful sense of place and time throughout – drawn through rich descriptions full of sights, tastes and smells. The settings are magnificently detailed – this is a book where you really do live with the characters – from the riverside opening, to the London pub with its absence of green, the boarding house and tearooms, through to the bungalow by the sea. But it’s not only the physical descriptions – the emotional depth is there too, beautifully crafted in an easy flowing style, building depths of feeling that are immensely moving.
This novel is described as being about sisterhood, motherhood and secrets that can’t be laid to rest – it’s also a quite beautiful read, slowly unfolding, all absorbing, and I’d really recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about the twists and turns of life and relationships against a beautifully drawn and constantly evolving historic backdrop. I really loved it.
Amanda Hodgkinson is an award winning British writer who grew up in a small Essex fishing village before moving to Suffolk, and attending the University of East Anglia. She now lives and works in south west France with her husband and their two daughters. For more information on the author and her books, she has an excellent website.
Spilt Milk will be published by Penguin Books UK on 6th February, and will be available in both Kindle and paperback editions. My thanks to netgalley and the publishers for my advance reading e-copy.