Review: ‘The Truth About Melody Browne’ by Lisa Jewell

I’ve always loved Lisa Jewell’s novels, so I was counting down to being able to read her latest offering, ‘The Truth About Melody Browne’, after my exams.

It’s a beautifully crafted story based around Melody, who lost her memories of her childhood after a fire at her home. After a chance encounter with a hypnotist, memories start to reform, and Melody discovers she’s been completely unaware of who she is for twenty-four years.

By basing the plot around rediscovery, the twists and turns are fully justified and not just the product of an author attempting to push you towards the edge of your seat. Instead, ‘Melody Browne’ takes you on a shared journey, incorporating readers within the story by allowing them to discover things both with and before Melody herself. As such, her story becomes the story of any of us: who really remembers their childhood and the impact it’s unknowingly had on who we are today? Melody’s journey, therefore, becomes increasingly significant with each revelation, and draws you through the book with its tantalising teasers about the real Melody and her repressed self.

A well sung Melody...

The only thing that bothered me were occasional slips in style: sometimes characters came out with things that didn’t seem to suit them, or the situation around them. This was more towards the beginning of the novel so maybe it was just working you into the plot, but towards the end when Melody confronts Gloria, it all seemed a bit too theatrically crafted, although the surrounding description was able to slightly justify Melody’s dialogue. I found Stacey quite hard to digest at times as well, but that’s probably because she’s more of a prop than a character in her own right, and she served her purpose quite well, although this is unlike Ben who was both prop and his own person.

Finding Ken at the end as well split my opinion: on one hand, it was a beautiful way to tie Melody’s newfound life together in a bow, but at the same time I felt Ken should have remained this mythological creature, which could have been achieved by leaving his role in the Epilogue as a silent embrace. Giving him words seemed to deflate his importance somewhat.

However, these very minor issues brushed aside, ‘Melody Browne’ was a thoroughly lovely read. Lisa Jewell showed how the innocence of childhood is directly connected to the building of a protected adulthood, and that the smallest details can alter our entire perception of the world. This was particularly poignant with Melody and Jane’s respective mothering: Melody’s protection of Edward was born out of Jane’s debilitating fear of loss, and it was incredibly poignant to see Melody overcome her fears, unlike the tragic end Jane faced. Tragedy became subconscious behavioural patterns, and it was incredibly emotional and fascinating to watch the roots of this behaviour become unearthed. ‘Melody Browne’ is a touching novel, filled with the mystery of knowing who we really are, and the life-affirming moments where you realise anything really is possible.

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Review: ‘Library of the Dead’ by Glenn Cooper

What started out as an impulse purchase to pass a train journey has ended up as an intensely riveting read: Glenn Cooper’s ‘Library of the Dead’ follows the precedent set by other historical-modern crime-thriller crossovers in creating an intense environment within the novel that propels you towards the psychologically intriguing conclusion.

 I’ll admit, I started off skeptical: here’s another author trying to emulate Dan Brown and the like, and other attempts to do so have never ended well (S.J.Parris’ ‘Prophecy’ springs to mind). Lesson learned, though: it’s not only Dan Brown who can pull off Da Vinci-esque plots.

It starts off with a serial killer, sending his victims postcards with their date of death on. But this is where simplicity ends: the postcards are a power-play, the killer is fate, and the past begins to take a new shape in FBI Special Agent Will Piper’s uncovering of the truth behind the omniscient killer.

First thing’s first: this book is set in a man’s world. Women are objects by which you reach the men, and a gauge for levels of sanity or otherwise in the men. However, I’m no feminist: to be frank, the novel works because it is a male world. It is this world which allows Will’s personal demons to become subsumed by his passion, allows Mark to unravel in his increasing erratic extravagance, and allows Octavus’ line to continue unimpeded. In short, women are objects, but I don’t think the novel loses anything through this, because it is the status as objects that allows the mystery to unravel, as the women signal the male determination to reach the long-awaited conclusion.

The blending of history with the present is a major strength in ‘LotD’. At first, throwing Churchill, President Truman, Area 51 and the like seems a bit contrived, and again I couldn’t help comparing it to Dan Brown, where history seamlessly links the past and present. However, continuing to read the novel shows how Cooper has cleverly manipulated history and perceptions of it to show the depths of deception lurking within multiple governments. The best example of this is the idea behind Area 51: the idea that the public was fed a lie but made to think that the truth had been unwittingly exposed was brilliant. The public become entangled in a series of lies that they believe are true and lies they didn’t even know existed. The truth, essentially, is hidden in plain site: everyone knows about Area 51, everyone believes a conspiracy regarding UFOs occurred, but no one looks beyond the exterior and sees the truth within.

I also loved the ominous ending to the novel. Whilst the knowledge of pre-determined fates causes harmony for Will and his family, the revelation of the significance of BTH (‘beyond the horizon’) dates in the final chapter mars this happiness. The reader is left in a psychological quandry: how does one live in the present knowing the future is set? What would the real ramifications of this information be? Cooper does the right thing in not even attempting to address the cause of Octavus’ supernatural foresight, instead leaving it to readers to speculate, and become more involved in the novel’s premise that life is for the living.

The only slightly jarring note was Mark: why did he decide to stake his place in the world by creating a killer, then use it on an insurance scam? The Doomsday killer, in short, was just a propeller to reach the Library, and a damn good one at that, but the story behind the killer was slightly lacklustre. But then, money is power, and for Mark this power was attempting to erase his dissatisfaction with his life. So maybe it is plausible, it just jarred slightly with the fast-paced nature of the rest of the novel.

Definitely a must for (sorry to align it to this again…) Dan Brown fans, as this is one novel that (finally!) lives up to the precedent left before it, and I will definitely be checking out Cooper’s other novel, ‘Book of Souls’, in the near future. Well, that’s if my date isn’t already written out in the library…

Review: ‘The House At Riverton’ by Kate Morton

This is one of those books that’s been collecting dust on my shelf for years, and I finally decided it was time to dust it off and give it a read. And I was so glad I did.

Kate Morton’s book is built around secrets that we can guess at, and that are implicitly obvious, and it is this intricate weaving of truth into the history that Grace is narrating that make the plot compelling. What I think is most attractive about these hints is that they take actions in different directions: at one point, Grace talks of how history is never truly static, because one account can alter another and add dimensions previously unseen, and it is this basis that ‘The House At Riverton’ is reliant upon. One person’s suicide is another person’s personal tragedy, one man’s jumpiness is another man’s shell shock, and one girl’s invisibility is actually a guise for omniscient knowledge.

The idea of Grace having reached 99 years old without dispelling the secrets of Riverton is one of the most beautiful elements of the plot. It means she is still unseen yet incredibly important: the film crew, the staff at Riverton when it becomes a tourist destination, even her own children, fail to recognise that Grace’s input changes history as it is known. The only thing that niggled at me slightly was in Part Four, where Grace is telling us how Hannah felt, and it’s an issue faced by many a first-person narrative, as you have to question how the narrator knows how others felt. However, it didn’t temper the pace of the story; if anything, moving towards Hannah quickened the pace in order to bring events to their haunting climax. What I missed slightly was Emmeline: she went from being the runt of the trio in The Game, to the sophisticated and beautiful socialite, but we only witnessed this transformation objectively, and although implicitly we are aware of Emmeline’s mentality, it would have been nice to see her as an individual.

One of the major strengths of the novel was its socio-historical descriptions. The condition of servants, the roles within a household and most poignantly, the First World War, were all described without over-indulgence: information was available but not forced on the reader, and as such it flowed with the story instead of being clunkily added in, as so many other novels have done. This particularly did justice to Alfred and Robbie, moulding their horrifying experiences into the British setting to highlight the continuous struggle they faced every day. The conflict between social roles and the internal disconcordance with these represented the novel perfectly: underneath the polished exterior of rank and hierarchy lay turmoil and devastation that the surface pushed away in an effort to deny its existence.

The interconnected nature of the various plot strands also worked in favour of the novel, as every character and situation had a destination. One of the more touching elements of this was the revelation that Grace finally found Alfred and was able to just be with him, without obligation or reprisals, and I think this is the point at which I started to well up! Equally, Marcus’ anticipated return was well-timed, as the story was able to both finish and be continued by Marcus and his writing, providing a brilliant circularity to the novel’s end by exposing the importance of a former house and Lady’s maid. Equally, Mr Hamilton and Mrs Townsend welcoming Grace back to Riverton was wonderfully poignant, as her journey was able to end where it began. This climaxed in Grace’s story only being complete with her death: the secrets stayed with her until the end, and only in death was she able to rejoin the house at Riverton.

The ending had me in floods: the misunderstood history, the union of two sisters being cemented only by their separation, and the opportunities denied by history were all written with such sensitivity that it was impossible not to be swept along in the tide of emotions. What made this even more impassioned was that it was all grounded in reality: the romanticism, the social situations, and the potential alternative lives were all genuine. Nothing was overdone and overkilled; everything felt natural, and it is for this reason that you end up feeling like you are stood alongside the characters, revelling in their triumphs and crying alongside them with their defeats. ‘The House at Riverton’ is a beautiful book, and one that haunts you with the realisation that history can never be fully known.