Monday 26 August 2019

In That Time of Secrets by Ann Turnbull reviewed by Adèle Geras

My usual disclaimer: I've been a friend of Ann Turnbull's for decades and we've also both written books for the  Historical House series, from Usborne books, together with Linda Newbery. So I couldn't be more partial but as I often say: I can't help it if lots of my friends are good writers. No one chides Nigella for being friends with Diana Henry, or worries if artists praise one another. So I'm going ahead and recommending this book.

Turnbull is a most rare sort of writer in these fast, internetty times. If I had to choose two words to describe her, they would be 'quiet' and 'elegant.'  She is the opposite of flashy and sensational, and yet the subjects she often writes about are laden with emotion and conflict and turmoil which she manages to make both moving and resonant, through the deliberately careful and rational unfolding of the narrative. We are, in this book, in a beautiful house in the Midlands, called Lyde Hall. Mary works as a seamstress and embroiderer in the great house, which we learn from the first scene is the home of a recusant family. Recusants were the Catholics who did not agree to worship in Protestant churches after the Reformation. They hid priests in corners of their houses; they kept the old Faith, and this was a very dangerous thing to do. Anyone caught sheltering priests, or worshipping in the old ways was subject often to terrible tortures and even death. 

For anyone who doesn't know about the Gunpowder Plot, the surprises in the narrative will be genuinely surprising and the skilful way in which Turnbull weaves the known history with a very touching love story is one of the joys of this book. If, like me, you can see  trouble coming from the first page, you will not be amazed at the way things turn out.

Mary falls in love with a young man called David, who is Lady Chilton's secretary. It's only later that she learns David is on his way to France to train as a Jesuit priest. Her love for him is doomed, but she persists in hoping...
Her brother, Rob, is caught in the backwash of the Gunpowder Plot. Turnbull is not one to dwell on the horrors of hanging, drawing and quartering but there's one paragraph where she spells out the details. Rather, she's the sort of writer who says a lot through understatement. For instance: He flinched when she touched him, either from pain or the fear of it.  There's a world of horror behind those words.

 The best thing about this book is the way Lyde Hall is brought to life. We meet its inhabitants, we are shown how life is lived there without an overloading of description. Turnbull is economical and spare and yet we see everything. I particularly liked the embroidery details which are again, very few but very telling.  I don't often quote long passages from books I'm reviewing, but as an example of Turnbull's restrained and yet resonant style, I'm quoting this, so that readers can glimpse something of the tone of this fascinating and moving novel. Mary is remembering the church she attends at home, in Dudley.  "There, between the base of the wall and an oak upright, where the whitewash petered out in rough brush strokes, you could see a woman's shoe, and over it the folds of a robe- green with a black and gold border, looped up over a kirtle of faded rose. The end of a gold belt or tassel hung down, and higher up was the trace of a hand. A saint, my mother said. But which one?"
Which one turns out to be very important, of course. No word or description is there merely for the sake of ornament. Do click on this link and buy it. You will not regret it, I promise. 



Enid Richemont said...

I loved this book!

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