A pleasure today to be joining the blog tour and sharing my review of The Sea Gate by Jane Johnson: published by Head of Zeus on 4th June, it’s now available for kindle, for Kobo and via Google Play. The hardback will follow on September 3rd, with the paperback to follow in November. My thanks to the publishers for the invitation and support, and for my advance reading e-copy (provided via netgalley).
The minute I saw the description of this one I knew it was a book I really wanted to read. I have read Jane Johnson’s writing before – The Tenth Gift way back in (I think…) 2006, and The Sultan’s Wife in 2012 (due for re-release in 2021, I see!) – but although I remember enjoying them both, because they were both “before the blog” I can’t find reviews to share. I must add that this was also one of those times when I was particularly enticed by the endorsement on the cover – if Santa Montefiore enjoyed it, chances are that I most certainly would too…
One house, two women, a lifetime of secrets…
Following the death of her mother, Becky begins the sad task of sorting through her empty flat. Starting with the letters piling up on the doormat, she finds an envelope post-marked from Cornwall. In it is a letter that will change her life forever. A desperate plea from her mother’s elderly cousin, Olivia, to help save her beloved home.
Becky arrives at Chynalls to find the beautiful old house crumbling into the ground, and Olivia stuck in hospital with no hope of being discharged until her home is made habitable.
Though daunted by the enormity of the task, Becky sets to work. But as she peels back the layers of paint, plaster and grime, she uncovers secrets buried for more than seventy years. Secrets from a time when Olivia was young, the Second World War was raging, and danger and romance lurked round every corner…
The Sea Gate is a sweeping, spellbinding novel about the lives of two very different women, and the secrets that bind them together.
My reading has been mainly on the lighter side during lockdown, and I have enjoyed every moment – but I did rather embrace the opportunity to read something different, a sweeping story set in the past and present. And my goodness, this book was everything I hoped it might be – filled with hidden secrets, fast paced, two compelling stories intricately entwined and cleverly linked by both location and a series of wonderfully managed echoes and reverberations.
Grief and loss are often the trigger for a fresh start, and this might not be the first book I’ve read where things happen because of the discovery of a letter – but this isn’t a letter from the past, it’s a plea for help from an elderly aunt in Cornwall, found among her mother’s correspondence after her recent death, looking for help so that she will be allowed to continue living in her cliff top home. Becky’s life is at a crossroads – concerns about her own health, a lack of direction, a relationship she’s begun to question, a family intent on keeping her at the periphery – and she grasps the opportunity to breathe a little while offering Olivia some much-needed support. She finds the home in a far worse state of repair than she expected, with a resident parrot (albeit one of considerable character – and a particularly foul mouth) making it considerably worse. But the house is most definitely worth saving – full of character and secrets, from its basement to its attic.
Olivia herself immediately wins Becky over – cantankerous, irreverent, constantly planning her “escape” from hospital – and it soon becomes clear that she has a story to tell. And we’re allowed to share it, through some of the most accomplished dual-time writing I’ve read in quite a while: we experience her growth to adulthood during WW2, in wartime Cornwall with her mother largely absent, the beaches lined with barbed wire and the prisoners of war supporting the war effort at a nearby farm. Even in her youth, she’s such a strong character – there are moments of real joy as she drives her father’s Flying Eight around the countryside, and her coming of age and a particular relationship she forms (quite wonderfully handled) put her in considerable danger. There’s a really well-sustained balance between the moments of high drama and the tenderness of the developing relationship, with the author showing a particular sensitivity with the emotional content.
Becky, as she sets about making the house inhabitable, the repairs to the home mirroring her own recovery, gradually uncovers a whole plethora of deeply hidden secrets – the secrets of the cellar that Olivia is so determined should be bricked up, the story behind the symbols carved on the door frame and the sea gate, the identity of a mysterious and sought-after artist, and the reasons why Olivia’s recent health might have declined rather more quickly than expected. It’s a story that moves at tremendous pace, filled with shocks and surprises and unpredictable turns: there are more than a few heart-in-mouth moments that make the book entirely impossible to put down, as Becky puts the past to rest while finding some resolution of her own issues.
As well as being a gripping and highly original story with the strongest of female characters, it’s the setting of this book that I think I might most remember. Chynalls (Cornish for “the house on the cliff”) is very much the third strong character in this book, the descriptions of its idiosyncrasies so vividly drawn, coupled with the most wonderful descriptions of its setting, its depths and secrets. This was a wonderful read – and the book a definite contender as one of my Books of the Year.
If you’d like to catch up with some of the earlier reviews, you’ll find them here…
About the author
Jane Johnson is a British novelist and publisher. She is the UK editor for George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb and Dean Koontz and was for many years publisher of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Married to a Berber chef she met while researching The Tenth Gift, she lives in Cornwall and Morocco.
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