The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding


If ever there was an impulse read, this would be it. I was perusing blogs one Saturday at work about a month ago and came across ‘The 10 Best Neglected Literary Classics’ list in the Guardian. I adore lists like this. I think they are a great source for finding exciting new reads. I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to find any of the titles in my library system so I grabbed my Kindle and started checking the availability of each title on Amazon. The Blank Wall was available, inexpensive and is one of the small number of ebooks published by Persephone Books. Sold!

The Blank Wall is a suspense novel set during World War II. Lucia Holley lives with her two teens and her father in a lakeside house. Her husband, Tom, is somewhere in the Pacific and her frequent letters from him are one of the only bright spots in her life. Her daughter, Bee, is in art school and has been dating an unscrupulous man called Ted Darby. When Lucia tries to stop the relationship she inadvertently immerses herself into a dark, dangerous and completely unfamiliar world she doesn’t know quite how to navigate.

The mystery part of this novel is definitely thrilling and well-done, but the more interesting aspect of the novel for me was the questions it raises about homemaking and motherhood. When the novel opens Lucia’s life has already altered with her husband away at war. However, she is still the isolated homemaker she has always been, only thinking about planning meals, how to keep her father entertained and her children’s future. When she is forced to come into contact with the outside world through her conflict with Bee’s boyfriend, she realizes that men still find her attractive, that she has the strength to navigate life outside of her home and she discovers the sad fact that her children have a limited view of her capabilities and don’t respect her.

Lucia’s narrow existence has stunted her character – she’s naive, childish and has an unrealistic view of how to handle problems. Her son David treats her like a little girl, chastising her about taking the boat out on the lake by herself. Bee is disgusted with Lucia and doesn’t have any regard for her especially after she interferes in her love life. The only one who looks up to Lucia is her father who is even more childish than she is.

I don’t think Holding is knocking being a wife and mother, but she is questioning if it somehow stunted the character of the young women who married and then were sucked into family life so completely. Lucia has certainly been sheltered by her husband and it makes me wonder how many women were challenged beyond anything they had ever known when their husbands left for war.

Joan Bennett as Lucia in ‘Reckless Moment’ – the movie version of ‘The Blank Wall’.

Another intriguing aspect of The Blank Wall is the relationship between Lucia and her maid, Sibyl. Sibyl is more streetwise than Lucia and looks after her more than Lucia realizes. Sibyl knows everything about Lucia, but Lucia knows nothing about Sibyl. It’s a very strange relationship and it fascinated me that these two women have an unacknowledged bond that sustains them both through their troubles.

This is a spectacular suspense novel and would have been wonderful if it was just that. The fact that it is also a thought-provoking social study is a bonus that I wasn’t expecting. I can’t recall ever having been haunted by a mystery novel before, but this book has stayed with me and has led me to wonder about the lives of all the women who were suddenly thrust outside of their comfort zones when their husbands went off to war.

I would highly recommend this novel. It is a revealing insight into life on the American home front during World War II, how the war changed the way women had to interact with society and how their roles changed within their families while their husbands were away. This is an unexpected, but perfect, book for Persephone to have published and I’m glad it’s available in ebook format –  hopefully, it will give more people access to this incredible novel.

Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart

Another Mary Stewart, another thumbs up! Touch Not the Cat is my second Mary Stewart and I enjoyed it just as much as the first. Like Thornyhold it is a combination romance/suspense/family drama that is smart, thrilling and has that sprinkling of the supernatural that I so enjoy.

Bryony Ashley is telepathic. Not just with anyone, though. She can only communicate through her mind with one person, her ‘lover’, a person she doesn’t know the identity of, but who is her constant companion and support. When her father is hit by a car and killed in Germany she knows instantly in her mind because her lover lets her know. After the funeral, Bryony learns that she has inherited the family cottage, but that the rest of the vast family estate has gone to her male cousin, Emory. However, the entire family, including herself and Emory’s two brothers, have to give their permission if Emory ever wants to sell the old pile. Well, it just so happens that Emory is having money troubles and subtly pressures Bryony into giving her permission for him to sell everything so he can repay his debts. Bryony is reluctant because she slowly uncovers evidence that Emory is a ruthless, cold man who has no scruples when it comes to getting money.

In the meantime, she desperately searches for the identity of her lover (who she thinks is one of her cousins) and befriends the American family who are renting the estate. When she discovers that valuable art pieces are missing from the house things come to a head and her cousin’s true motives and the identity of her lover are both revealed. The end of the novel is a sensational page-turner that had me tense with anxiety.

A maze plays a huge role in Touch Not the Cat. This is the maze at Chatsworth. from

Touch Not the Cat is a very entertaining book, kind of silly, but I like Mary Stewart’s characters and her style of writing. I put a hold at the library on a volume that has four of her novels, but it seems the book is missing so I think I will buy some of her novels from the Internet because I truly like them and want to read more. The mixture of suspense + romance + history + sympathetic heroines + interesting settings =instant enjoyment and pleasure.

Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

First off I want to take a moment to *gush* about Mary Stewart. She is amazing. I’ve been reading a lot about her the past few months here and here and here. I felt immediately sure that I would like her novels, but I didn’t know how smitten I would be. Her writing is dreamy and evocative and her main characters are sensible and likeable. And there is the supernatural! I don’t know if all of her novels contain otherworldly elements, but this one and the one I am reading now, Touch Not the Cat, definitely do and I like it.

Thornyhold reminded me in some ways of Practical Magic, Garden Spells and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. There were elements of all these books drifting through Thornyhold, but Stewart has such a charming, unique style that I didn’t feel like I was entering “been there/done that” territory. Plus, Stewart came first!

Geillis (Jilly) Ramsey has had a tough life. Her parents are not affectionate, won’t let her have pets (which she dearly longs for) and ship her off to school at the first chance they get. Her mother is a cold, stern woman who doesn’t provide any light or sparkling moments for Geillis to cherish. The most memorable interactions of her childhood are with her mother’s cousin, Geillis Saxon. Cousin Geillis has mysteriously appeared in her life a few times throughout her childhood and has left a tender and magical impression on Jilly’s heart. During college Jilly’s mother passes away and she returns home to care for her aging father until he dies as well. With no where to go and feeling anxious for her future she receives notification that Cousin Geillis, whom she hasn’t seen in years, has also passed and has left Jilly her home in the country, a home called Thornyhold.

Could this be Thornyhold?

This miraculous coincidence takes her to a paradisaical home that is surrounded by a neglected, but lush garden.  As Jilly settles into her new environment she encounters her young neighbor William and her cousin’s housekeeper Agnes Tripp who is not altogether trustworthy. She soon discerns that her cousin was known as a wise woman among her neighbors and she suspects that she may have the same gifts herself.

Slow, simmering suspense and a very sweet love story infuse Thornyhold with the perfect mixture of the serious and sublime. Jilly is a great character, a woman I can see myself befriending – she’s so real and believable. The setting is also colorfully alive and tangible – Stewart has a huge talent for description.

Reading this novel was like snuggling down into a soft, warm bed in your own familiar room – completely comfortable and satisfying. I think I have found an author who will stay with me.

Have you read Mary Stewart? Do you have a favorite Mary Stewart novel?

Blood Harvest by S.J. Bolton

Reading Blood Harvest was like a breath of fresh, though unpure, air after my recent struggle with The Night Circus. Fast-paced, economically written and never losing my interest for a minute – it was just the book I needed after the density of my previous read.

Trying to describe this novel would involve too many snarled threads so I’ll keep it simple. There is a house near a graveyard, children seeing and hearing spooky “monsters”, unexplained disappearances of little girls, harvest rituals, an unconventional vicar, a beautiful and handicapped psychiatrist, madness, insularity, crypts and nights on the moors.

These threads all miraculously fuse together to form a riveting and truly spine chilling novel. This is the first book I’ve read in quite a while that had me looking over my shoulder and seriously wishing I hadn’t read it before bed. Bolton has a way of injecting the supernatural into the story in a very believable way.

Her characters are not quite lovable, but sympathetic and their motives are understandable. Her writing is like a wildfire burning its way through the pages – she is skilled at crafting page-turners.

I will warn those of you who are distressed by descriptions of violence or harm against children to stay far away from this book as this issue is one of the central themes of the novel, though I don’t think Bolton exploits it for entertainment purposes.

I haven’t read a good thriller since the spring and I thank Helen at She Reads Novels for introducing me to S.J. Bolton. I can see that I will now have to devour her three other novels!

Affinity by Sarah Waters

Well, Sarah Waters has done it again. She’s completely hijacked my life with one of her engrossing, agonizing novels. I’ve previously read Fingersmith and The Little Stranger and loved them both so turned to Affinity with much anticipation. I bought a copy of it about a year ago and just couldn’t work up any interest in it at that time. When I picked it up last week during the midst of my reading slump I knew that it was the golden book that was going to break me out of the slump.

Margaret Prior is a mentally ill spinster who lives with her widowed mother in London during the 1870’s. In an effort to distract her from the depression that has overwhelmed her after the death of her father, a family friend suggests that she become a “lady visitor” at Millbank Prison. The role of the lady visitor is to inspire the prisoners to be better people by the example of their good breeding and good sense. Margaret immediately feels the hypocrisy of this effort yet continues to visit the prison when she becomes smitten with Selina Dawes, who is a spirit medium in prison for abusing a patron of her work. Selina is enchantingly beautiful with golden hair and the look of a renaissance painting. She seems to be a cut above the other prisoners and more refined and innocent than her fellow inmates. Margaret soon becomes obsessed with her, an obsession that leads to terrible decisions and feverish choices. Will Margaret risk her comfortable middle-class life to have the woman she loves?

Affinity oozes with dread. The novel is dark and dangerous and the sense of foreboding for the reader corresponds with the downward spiral of Margaret’s despair. I love when authors can match the reader’s feelings to the plot. I really liked Margaret. She is clearly intelligent and gifted, yet she is bored with her status in society. She so desperately does not want to be her mother’s companion for the remainder of her life. She is looking for passion, for beauty, for an experience that will lift her above the drudgery and routine of daily life. Selina provides this escape. Selina is mysterious, exotic and powerful and is maybe the more fascinating character because we never really know her. The novel is told through diary entries, Margaret’s interspersed with Selina’s daily jottings of her life before prison. Margaret is easy to sympathize with, Selina is not and she is also a bit frightening because of her ability to sway people’s impressions of her.

Despite its unhappy premise I adored this novel. I really do think Sarah Waters is a fabulous writer and she is, at the moment, my favorite.

Have you read Affinity or any other novels by Sarah Waters? What do you think of her books?