Tuesday 12 February 2013

A Mile of River by Judith Allnatt

Almost every day I receive parcels of books through my letterbox - from publishers, authors and book websites.  I'm so lucky and really grateful, I often read books long before they are published and it's a pleasure and an honour.

Sometimes though, I look across at my heaving bookshelves and see the books that have been sitting there for such a long time.  Books that I've bought because I knew that I must read them, books that have been passed on to me highly recommended from fellow book addicts, books that have sat patiently waiting to be read.

So, I decided that I really must read a few more of my sad and lonely books, alongside the new releases and pre-publication copies that arrive all the time.

A Mile of River by Judith Allnatt has been on my shelf for at least 2 years, mine is the hardback copy which was published by Doubleday in March 2008 and is Judith Allnatt's first novel.

Set in the long hot summer of 1976, this is the story of seventeen-year-old Jess and her younger brother Tom.  Jess and Tom live on a farm in the heart of the English countryside with their father Henry.  Their mother left many years ago, when Tom was just a baby.  She drove away one day and Jess and Tom have not seen her or heard from her since.    Jess wants to be an ordinary teenage girl, she dreams of studying medicine, of going to the local fair and the end of term dances.  She's beginning to take an interest in boys and longs to be like her friends.  Her father Henry expects Jess to be a mother figure to Tom, to prepare the meals, wash the clothes and clean the house - he is a brutal, cold man who shows no love towards his children at all.  They are expected to help out on the farm - a farm which is struggling and is in debt to the bank, yet Henry is too proud to ask for help.

One evening, when Henry is at the local pub, Jess finds her mother's diary wedged at the back of a chest of drawers.  This diary is the only thing that she has that links her to the woman who left them.  Henry refuses to speak about her, and all of her belongings are long gone.  Although there is little of note in the diary, Jess treasures it.

As Jess becomes more and more determined to make something of her life, and Henry becomes more desperate to save the farm, the temperatures rise both inside and outside.    The story turns darker and more menacing when Jess makes a discovery that will rock her world and change everything that she has ever believed.  Coupled with a disaster on the farm, this is the turning point for the family.

Judith Allnatt
A Mile of River is a beautifully written story of family relationships and how one lie can lead to another and in turn, can shape a life and a future.  Judith Allnatt has cleverly interwoven Jess's present story with that of her mother Sylvie - giving the reader a real insight into her life and her marriage to Henry.

The characterisation is superb.  Henry is a selfish and mean man, his past has soured his future, yet he made his own past, and although the reader can understand to an extent what has made him behave in the way that he does, it didn't make me like him at all.  He is a coward who refuses to face up to his failings.

This really is a fabulous debut novel and although it is very dark in places, the characters of Jess and Tom, and their hope shines through.  The sense of place, alongside the realism of the stifling heat and parched earth  add volumes to this excellent story.

Judith Allnatt's second novel The Poet's Wife was published in February 2010, and yes I have that one sitting on my shelf waiting to be read too!

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