Laura Beatty

Published by Chatto & Windus 22 May 2014

374pp, hardback, £16.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside


Laura Beatty’s second novel, set in the Welsh Marches and in London, follows Mia, a thirty-nine-year-old woman who is trying to rebuild her life after the death of her lover, John.  John was a journalist working on a book about the life of Lady Brilliana Harley, a Puritan during the period of the English Civil War, when he died suddenly. Mia decides to complete the book, undertaking the research herself while John’s friend writes the book from her notes.

The novel is split into three sections, the middle one set in John’s London flat where Mia continues to live, surrounded by John’s things.  Even though he is dead, John’s shadow hangs over Mia at every turn.  Her love for him is strong and at times seems to tip over into hero worship.  Beatty deftly conveys that Mia is desperately lonely, looking out from her third floor window on the hustle and bustle of London life below.  Without John she has lost her sense of herself and is looking for a way to fill the void her lover has left behind.

In her much earlier era, Brilliana is a fascinating character who, in the absence of her husband and sons, rallied the locals to defend her home, Brampton Bryan Castle, against the attacking Royalists.  Mia becomes increasingly captivated by her subject, delving into old records and visiting the various Harley homes on the Welsh-English border.  This serves as both a distraction and comfort as she grieves for John.

Mia has a complicated relationship with her blind father and Beatty has them both carefully picking their way through conversations, trying not to fall into the emotional traps that are lurking just below the surface. There is a secret that Mia cannot bear to reveal to her father and this creates a barrier between them.  Beatty is subtle but the parallels between John and Mia’s father and her relationships with both men are expertly woven into the story.  Ultimately, Mia must resolve the conflict with her father before she can restart her life without John.

This is a well-researched novel that skilfully moves back and forward in time following the fortunes of well-crafted characters.  For anyone not au fait with the English Civil War, the book has a timeline of the major events which helps to put Brilliana’s story in context as does her family tree.  Copies of various documents are scattered through the text which demonstrate the kind of records that Mia must decipher to find out more about Brilliana and her world.

While Beatty’s novel is partly historical it is much more than a dry history lesson.  It deals with love, loyalty and loss as it affects two women who live centuries apart.  This is an absorbing read that draws the reader in from the outset and lingers in the memory long after the last page has been turned.


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