Still have catching up to do with my reviews, but this book is simply so brilliant and wonderful that it is getting a post all on its own. Two years ago I read this author's book The Maestro's Voice which, as it had an operatic background, was of great interest to me. I thought it quite marvellous and my review is here should you wish to refresh your memory.
I will admit that a large amount of my enjoyment of that book was the fact that it had a setting and background that I love and the operatic references enhanced the reading experience, so when I was sent The Good Wife's Castle I wondered if I would like it as much. Now that I have finished reading it I cannot imagine why such a stupid thought crossed my mind as I was totally riveted by it and its effect stayed with me for quite a few days while I thought about my review.
Granville St Clair is a middle aged clergyman, at a crisis point in his life. His marriage is rocky, his wife is unhappy living where they do, and she is impatient and scornful of his 'visions', his moments of bliss and happiness which come to him unexpectedly ".....a sudden, silent surge of voltage, and a renewed wave of wonder passed through Granville. He quietly gasped with relief and joy at the encounter, like a diver who has pulled away from the cusp of calamity and emerges into God's clean air. He could see so clearly in that moment that everything had to change"
He wakes early one morning and goes out for a walk and it is while he is out that he meets Piet Steyn, a South African, who has recently moved into the area. He has kept himself to himself in a cottage right at the end of the village. As they meet and introduce themselves they turn to walk past the Old Rectory and both accidentally witness the owner, Bertie Gosling, commit suicide. They are too late to save him and they discover a young girl, Hetty, in the bedroom upstairs. She is a teenager and shaking with fright and Granville makes a decision to get her out of the house and shield from the Gosling family that Bertie had been having an affair. After some persuasion Piet agrees to his actions and the two are now united together in this deceit.
The discerning reader will know immediately that this decision by Granville is foolish and wrong and is going to lead to nothing but trouble. And so it begins. Hetty turns up at the funeral and constantly makes demands on Granville, will not leave him alone and, in the end and tells his wife Edwina that they have been having an affair. She immediately packs her bags and leaves taking their two daughters with her and refuses to trust Granville and believe him when he tells her that it is all lies. Their marriage is on shifting ground and she is not prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
While all this has been going on, Piet has been offering friendship and support to the widow, Janet Gosling, and her sons but his interest becomes more and more intrusive and takes a rather sinister turn. The reader has already learned that he has a murky background and by this stage of the book, knows that he is a religious obsessive who is living a secret life of which the villagers, and Granville, know nothing.
Granville turns to him for help after his wife's desertion and Piet agreed to speak to Hetty about the situation. He tells Granville that he has done so and all is well. Then the police turn up on Granville's doorstep. Hetty has committed suicide......or has she?
Now I am going to have to stop right here. It is impossible to write any further without giving the plot twists away and I certainly don't want to do that as I want the creeping realisation of what is happening to sneak up on you as it did me.
While I was reading The Good Wife's Castle I realised it reminded me of something and it wasn't long before I recalled Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. The story is different, of course, but at its heart is an obsessive love, one which won't go away and which you know is going to cause disaster. All throughout the McEwan book one is conscious of an underlying feeling of hidden menace, the knowledge that something horrible is going to happen and there is no way to avoid it. The same feeling pervades Roland Vernon's book and on one or two occasions I actually had to put it down to relieve the tension, have a cup of tea, and come back to it. It was all most unsettling.
The story builds to a shattering and nail biting climax which had me pinned to the sofa and on the edge of my seat, if it is possible to do both things at the same time, and I found I was reading faster and faster as the pace picked up and I wanted to find out what happened.
This is a wonderful book, tightly written with super characterisation - you warm to Granville, though you can also get impatient with him, and know immediately that Piet Steyn is not what he appears to be and is an evil man. This is evident almost immediately though I would be hard put to tell you why. Just another example of the sharp edged narrative.
The ending chilled me completely and when I closed it up I found I shivered and felt most uncomfortable. Took me an hour or two to get it out of my mind, and it keeps coming back all the time.
As a footnote, I have mentioned Enduring Love by Ian McEwen, but I also thought of another book, read by me some years ago and reviewed here, which tells the story of a nun who has visions and is esteemed by her convent because of this. It is then discovered that she has a form of epilepsy which could account for this seeming connection with God and she has to have an operation. Once this has been cured she is then forced to face up to the fact that the visions have a physical explanation and this revelation tests her faith and finds it wanting. There is a passage in The Good Wife's Castle when Granvile, at his wife's request, visits his GP to discuss his own manifestations which are becoming more frequent. He is offered an MRI but Granville decides he does not want to do this. Perhaps he, too, is frightened that this state of heightened sensitivity, these 'benedictions' that have been part of his spiritual life can be explained away and he might have to face up to the fact that his beliefs may be based on a false premise.
I will say it again, this is a wonderful book and is already on my Books of the Year 2012 list. I also thank Roland Vernon for linking to the Maestro's Voice in the first chapter when Granville looks at a photograph of Rocco Campobello 'finest of all the golden age operatic tenors, a personal gift from the great man himself to Granville's grandfather in 1924'. I now feel I need to return to that book and see if I can find a mention of this gentleman as this reference has rather intrigued me.
There is also something that the two books have in common, well at least I think so, which struck me as I neared the ending of The Good Wife's Castle, but I may be imagining it and am not going to say anything about as it will give a plot line away.
Do buy and read, but be warned, if you do you will have to read it right through - once started you won't be able to put it down...
Five stars all round.