It’s an absolute pleasure today to be launching the blog tour for The Heart Stone by Judith Barrow, and to share my review. Published today by Honno, it’s available for kindle and in paperback: the paperback and the e-book in e-pub format are also available via Hive, or you might prefer to buy the paperback through Honno’s website or via Bookshop.org. My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours for the invitation and support, and to the publishers for my advance reading e-copy (provided via netgalley).
I know I’ve mentioned before that sagas are a genre I very rarely read – although I’m not averse to dipping into history now and then, most of my reading does tend to be more contemporary. I never did manage to read Judith’s immensely popular Howarth trilogy (A Pattern of Shadows, Changing Patterns and Living in the Shadows), which spans 1911 to the late 60s. But, prompted by an upcoming visit to Narberth Book Fair in 2018 (Judith was the co-organiser), I did read the series prequel, A Hundred Tiny Threads: you’ll find my review here, and I have to say it was an absolute delight to discover her wonderful writing.
And then came The Memory: absolutely compelling, a story superbly told, and an entirely unforgettable emotional experience (you’ll find my review here). It was so stunning that I called it “one of the most powerful books I’ve read” and it thoroughly deserved its place in my books of the year list for 2019 – and if you haven’t yet read it, I recommend it without reservation. So although The Heart Stone was a return to the saga genre, and might not have attracted me if I hadn’t already enjoyed the author’s writing, I was very much looking forward to it.
When war takes Jessie’s love away, she must fight for her own survival.
1914 – and everything changes for Jessie on a day trip to Blackpool. She realises her true feelings for her childhood friend, Arthur. Then just as they are travelling home from this rare treat, war is declared.
Arthur lies about his age to join his Pals’ Regiment. Jessie’s widowed mother is so frightened of the future, she agrees to marry the vicious Amos Morgan, making Jessie’s home an unsafe place for her. Before he leaves, Arthur and Jessie admit their feelings and promise to wait for each other. Arthur gives Jessie a heart-shaped stone to remember him. But with Arthur far away, their love leaves Jessie with a secret that will see her thrown from her home and terribly abused when she can hide the truth no longer.
Faced with a desperate choice between love and safety, Jessie must fight for survival, whatever the cost.
Whenever I read a well written historical saga, I wonder why on earth I don’t do so more often. This wonderful book entirely took over my life and my waking thoughts for as long as I read it: it engaged me from its opening pages, I became totally involved in Jessie’s struggle for survival, and it really was story-telling at its very best.
It’s not, I must admit, the easiest book to review at length – the story is full of twists and turns that I really don’t want to risk revealing, but which will make your heart ache every bit as much as they did mine. At the story’s heart, Jessie is just magnificent – ordinary in so many ways, but wholly exceptional as she grapples with situations that draw on every possible bit of bravery and resilience that she can summon. I really loved her, and the hurt I felt at every challenge she faced became almost physical. Sometimes, it’s all so raw that it’s difficult to read, very emotional but with such authenticity that you live and breathe every moment of cruelty and danger, sadness and loss. I will say that the lighter moments are few and far between, but there is real warmth and joy in the friendships and some of the family relationships – I particularly enjoyed her complex relationship with Edna, Arthur’s mother, and the closeness that developed.
The historical backdrop is wonderfully drawn – the whole book is a real lesson in how to use research into the social, political and industrial background to bring an era and setting to life and make it entirely real. The focus is on the home front, but there are excursions to the battlefields and front too – searing and powerful, acutely affecting.
Although Jessie is very much the story’s focus – so compelling that it’s impossible to look away – the characterisation of the supporting cast is superb too, the unsympathetic characters (that’s something of an understatement) inspiring real anger and hatred, those who show rare acts of kindness equally well rounded. But my goodness, the story-telling – the pacing, the dialogue, the moments of the unexpected, the emotional highs and lows were all just so perfectly handled.
It’s a few days now since I finished reading, but Jessie’s story is still occupying my thoughts – and that’s a sure sign of a rather special book. Very highly recommended… I loved this one.
About the author
Judith Barrow has lived in Pembrokeshire for nearly forty years. She is the author of six novels (five for Honno), and has published poetry and short fiction, winning several poetry competitions, and had a play performed at the Dylan Thomas Centre. Judith grew up in the Pennines, has degrees in literature and creative writing, and makes regular appearances at literary festivals. She is the joint founder of the Narbeth Book Festival.