Having been much impressed by Judith Allnatt’s second book, The Poet’s Wife, a few months ago, I was excited to read this, her debut novel. Set in the sweltering, drought hit summer of 1976 on a rural farm in the North of England, it tells the story of Jess, a seventeen year old girl desperate to escape the confines of her often suffocating family life. Jess’ father Henry is a proud and stubborn man; strict, violent and concerned merely with the running of his farm. As the weather gets hotter and the local river begins to dry out, the already dire finances of the farm are threatened to dangerous measures, making Henry even more prone to rages than usual. Jess’ mother, Sylvie, walked out on the family when Jess was a child and her younger brother Tom just a baby, and they haven’t heard from her since. As such, Jess must be a mother to nine year old Tom as well as running the house and helping her dad out with the farm. Anxious to do well in her school exams so that she can go to university and study medicine, as well as spend time with her friends and Martin, the boy she likes, her life is increasingly becoming a balancing act between the demands of her father, the farm, Tom, and school. When she disobeys her father to go out to the local fair and meet Martin, Henry’s wrath is such that he bans her from going to school and taking her exams. Her place, says Henry, is at home, and on the farm, and she shouldn’t want more than that. Devastated, Jess is forced to ever more desperate measures to secure a life for herself, but the last thing she expects is a shocking discovery one day as she walks along the banks of the river; a discovery that will throw her and her family’s life into turmoil she never could have imagined.
Alongside Jess’ story, we also hear about Sylvie’s life with Henry, through a journal Jess finds at the back of a drawer. Initially pleased to marry him and escape her own difficult home life, it’s not long before Sylvie realises that the passionate and loving man she married cares more for his farm than for her and their children. Like Jess, she longs for an independent life of her own, a way to express her creativity, meet people, and make friends, rather than be stuck alone in the farmhouse all day, with only Henry’s kindly father, who always does his best to work things out for Sylvie, for an ally. However, Henry doesn’t allow Sylvie to have a job or make friends, and he makes it clear that her place is on the farm, looking after him. When Sylvie finally does manage to get herself a job, Henry’s jealousy and anger are too much for Sylvie, and she runs away from him, never to return…though, as Jess always wonders, how could she have willingly left her beloved children behind?
This is a wonderful novel that is profoundly unsettling and excellently characterised, with many more terrific characters than I have space to describe. Jess is a heroine you can’t help but root for; she tries so hard to do what is best for everyone else, but at the same time, she can’t deny her own ambitions and desires. Devastated by her father’s lack of love for her, and by her mother’s abandonment, she is also badly treated by Martin and depended on by Tom. Her life is a constant struggle of walking on eggshells, deception, duty, and worry, and my heart broke for her as she tries to go through life with no mother to guide her and the weight of a world on her young shoulders to carry. All she wants is to be a normal teenager, and Henry’s cruel, violent behaviour annoyed me so much I wanted to reach into the pages and slap him. I kept hoping he would change his behaviour, have an epiphany of sorts, and let Jess have the life she had worked so hard for. I also kept hoping Sylvie would come back and make it all ok. However neither of these things happen, but the ‘why’ behind Sylvie’s abandonment and Henry’s attitude is revealed in a shocking twist that I certainly didn’t see coming, and the book is worth reading for this touch of brilliant plotting alone.
Judith Allnatt is a very atmopsheric, descriptive writer, and I felt like I too was milking in the barn alongside Jess, my clothes wet with sweat, the frustration and misery of another day spent under the tyranny of an abusive father filling my heart. I greatly enjoyed reading this, though I did have a couple of misgivings. Firstly, as it so perfectly captures the voice of a seventeen year old, I felt this should have been classified more as a ‘Young Adult’ novel. Secondly, I was frustrated by Jess’ depicted dependency on men. Jess’ happy ever after only comes after she has found a boy who loves her, and like her mother before her, she looks to boys to ‘rescue’ her from her troubled home life. I find this incredibly irritating, when girls are depicted in books as co-dependent, helpless creatures whose true happiness entirely depends on whether they are in a relationship or not. For a character who grew up in a home with a father who was both an abusive husband and an abusive parent, I did question Judith Allnatt’s decision to place Jess’ future happiness in the hands of yet another male figure. It seemed to somewhat negate the strength of character Jess had shown in the book, as both boys she dates are only really interested in her because of her looks and her willingness to have sex, and Jess is quite happy to go along with this. I would have liked this book even more if Judith Allnatt had let Jess be an independent woman, wanting to go off alone to university to work out who she was and what she wanted from life, on her own terms. As it was, I closed the book concerned that Jess would end up just like her mother; desperately throwing herself into unsuitable relationships in an attempt to find the security she had never had throughout her upbringing, and finding herself, through lack of maturity and self confidence, in the same position she was in before.
I received my copy of this book from the publisher, Transworld, and would be delighted to pass it on to another blogger! Let me know in the comments if you’d like it – anywhere in the world is fine – and I’ll draw a winner in a few days.