Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book Review: Pennance by Clare Ashton

Pennance by Clare Ashton is a quiet rural mystery, set in rural Cornwall. A gentle, serious love story, it follows the recovery and gradual, growing love between two fragile women, and the protagonist's climb out of a pit of depression and guilt.

Rural England. A tiny village where everyone knows everyone else's business, with scattered outlying cottages and houses and manors, and mud and rain and skimpy sunshine and gossip, gardening and politeness and getting drunk down at the pub. Within the first couple of pages, I knew exactly where I was, somewhere in rural Devon or Cornwall, and the rest of the chapter just drew me further in.

Lucy, our protagonist, is the survivor of a car crash that took her new husband's life a year ago. She now lives in a state of utter misery, depression, guilt and paranoia, made worse by her mother in law's vendetta against the local garage, the increasing attentions of her brother in law Ben, and the fact that her dead husband was the darling of the village. She hides in her cottage away from the world, terrified of fire and cars and people. When Karen and her two children move in at the manor next to her cottage, she slowly finds an equally broken friend in gentle Karen, who is shattered from her divorce and struggling to raise her children alone. The two women bond over their shared pain, as well as Karen's adorable toddler, George.

Karen is a recent divorcee, a woman whose marriage fell onto the rocks after she had a second child that her husband didn't want. Her husband and her daughter Sophia are generally unpleasant, selfish, charming, borderline sociopathic, people (Sophia is clearly her father's daughter and heavily resents her mother taking her away, as well as her mother's interest in Lucy - though it's unclear if it's because Lucy is another woman, or if Sophia is just generally jealous and angry).

Much of the story is about the women becoming friends, as well as the increasing violence and desperation of the garage owner, as he is bankrupted, Lucy's attempts to come to terms with her personal tragedy and guilt, Lucy's memories of Tom (they met in a walking group), Ben's attempts to bring Lucy back into the world - and his life, and an increasing number of small, threatening occurrences aimed at Lucy.

The really good parts of this book was the setting and the believability of the characters and their motivations and problems. The less than good parts are that the mood, storyline and setting won't suit everyone, it's not overtly lesbian and could, for much of the story, pass as a 'two women who become friends and depend on each other', rather than passionate lesbian romance, and it isn't a particularly happy book. Lucy is really not well and doesn't function properly, and this shows; from her mindset to her eating habits, right down to the description of just how dirty her home is. While she improves over time, with Karen's support, and her recovery is noticeable, but believably non-miraculous, a year of solid misery and paranoia doesn't just vanish. The mystery and drama isn't that exciting, but it's the sort of thing most readers can identify with; a break in, drunken threats, a negligence lawsuit, some arson. It fits the setting and the overall story. A kidnapping, serial killers, or terrorists would have been just silly.

Most of that is more of a 'make sure it's your type of book' than a 'don't read this book' warning, though. 

The romance was very gentle, a steady undercurrent as the two women became closer and closer, as they supported and healed and loved each other, until the attraction was increasingly inevitable.  There was fairly heavy foreshadowing that neither woman really planned on finding another man, ever, but this could have easily have been a book about two dear friends - they did fall into each other's arms, and kiss, and - well, slightly more than that, and there was a nice lack of drama about the whole lesbian aspect, with the exception of a third party disparaging the nasty lezzie lifestyle at one point.  Both women were probably bisexual; while neither had a man they wanted in their lives anymore, both referred to happy memories of previous times and boyfriends.

The reveals were generally very well done, with the right balance struck between leading us on and artificially distorting the story to keep it hidden. This is a fairly gentle story, and the way it is told, hints and slowly emerging truths, prevents some of the more dramatic or violent twists changing the entire mood, or jolting us out of our emotional involvement. It's also nice to guess a bit, then 'know' what happened and have it confirmed at about the same time. That's always a problem with mysteries and secret pasts, whether to drop obvious hints everywhere, treating reader and characters like idiots, or to have incredibly unpredictable, unguessable 'twists', to the point of disbelief, and have your reader just give up on figuring out what's going on. I think Clare Ashton might make a good murder mystery writer, of the gentler, gossipy, quiet 'nosy neighbour poking around her village' sort of mystery.

The villain of the piece is a major spoiler; while I guessed it reasonably quickly (about half way through), I think I was supposed to, and the main character had good reason not to be able to easily identify them. I was also left wondering if there might be more than one person at work and was successfully misled, at least to the point of considering multiple suspects.

There were a few minor plot wall bangers; the pit trap didn't ring quite true, for example, and some of the back and forth-ing of the various characters was misleading or went in circles, or seemed unnecessary, but I can also read that quite happily as fragile emotional drama and believable reactions, or as sneaky and necessary distraction by the author in order to retain a sense of suspense. Still, it shouldn't be obvious that they're doing that! Either it should be clues and mystery, or the protagonist's daily life, mixing them sometimes doesn't work. Oh, and for the first half of the book, she constantly talks to Tom's ghost. When she stops, reflecting her happier and healthier state of mind, she doesn't even notice; this felt like something that should have come up at least once later on.

I think my final, major complaint is that the ending ended too soon. Just as the story is rolling to a natural end, we had a sudden switch to a happily ever after, but the 'new' ending didn't continue long enough for my satisfaction. I had actually resigned myself to tragedy, and, while I didn't want them not to get together (we've all had enough Tragic Lesbian Love Stories), I felt the sad version actually fitted the book and the characters very well. So I was a little disorientated, though happy for them.  As such, I don't really like the ending! It was a happy ending, but I felt that the pace of the book would have been better suited by either the sad ending that looked almost inevitable, or another couple of chapters (at least), as they figured themselves and their future out. Instead we leave at the moment of confirmation of mutual true love and happy ever after.

And the villain technically gets away with their bad behaviour, although they don't get exactly what they wanted. I was left worrying about what they would do in the future, and they were tidied away a bit too neatly. On the other hand, the nature of the villain made them difficult to 'solve'. Some consequences would have been nice to see, though, as well as some wrapping up of loose ends; what happened to the cottage? Did they stay in the village? How quickly did they end up in bed? A final chapter following their potential for a happy life together, that I could have read secure in knowing that was all it was, would have been nice. This was a book that could have gone on for much longer, as we watched them grow together and face challenges and explore their love and attraction, and I wanted it to.

Two paragraphs complaining about the book ending. I guess that's actually a good sign?

Grammar wise; the first chapter was absolutely fine, but after that it could have benefited from another pass from a proof reader. A consistent lack of commas where commas should be, leading to slightly awkward sentence pacing, and an increase in missed words (the small connecting words like 'to' and sometimes pronouns). For some reason, first time published writers seem to like picking out a particular word to misspell all the way through the book. I know it's probably an error that gets embedded into their spellcheck, but it gets really annoying. I start to feel like they're doing it on purpose, just to irritate me. Just as I start to think I'm safe and that I can gush about the lack of typos and spelling mistakes. In this case, it was anything that had two 'ee's (peel and heel were the main culprits, being spelt as peal and heal).

Edit: The author has since contacted me to let me know that the copy I read was a review copy, and the final version has been proof read a bit more, and no longer has spelling mistakes. I can't guarantee this, of course, but if it was all brought up to the level of the first chapter, then I would have no complaints at all. 

I don't think the village of the title is a real place, but there are a few buildings and places in Cornwall with 'Pennance' in the name (and yes, I think it's a deliberate pun; Lucy certainly feels like she needs to do penance!). 

Overall; a good book. It is certainly different, and while our characters aren't particularly heroic and astonishing, they ring very true, and I read it all in one sitting.

You can buy Pennance both as an eBook and as a paperback from Amazon.  

You may also be interested in:

1 comment:

  1. Ok. Here I am giving a chance to this book, despite all your coments about it. I'm really wondering if it'll take any longer to show the 'lesbian stuff'. For now, there's only fear, ghosts... and more fear. Ok. Now I'm wondering if I'll in fact finish this book!