GENRE: historical novel
Beside the River Needle is a willow, meeting place for generations of Needlewick girls. Suzanna is the elder daughter of the village doctor who, with her friends, plans various outings, memorably to the Tunnel Woods where Suzanna has a momentous encounter. Helen is Suzanna's niece. She lacks companions of her own age, but makes up for it with the imaginative world she creates for herself. In the summer of 1909, Suzanna's daughter, Sophia, is sent from London to stay with her cousin and soon Sophia and Helen are inseparable. Years later, after the War, Sophia is engaged to be married. Over the years she has lost a great deal - but not her ambition for a rich and secure future. Then one morning she learns of a strange legacy. To receive her bequest, she must return to Needlewick. There she seeks out the people and hidden places of her childhood - and following her there are others for whom Needlewick is a place of devastating significance.
THIS MISS REVIEWS:
I like to read Katharine McMahon’s novels and I was eager to read A Way through the Woods, too, but I have to admit that it shows this is one of McMahon’s first novels. I know this is no excuse, though, as there are examples of debut novels that seem to have been written by an expert author, when in truth they’re someone’s first novel. The truth is, this particular novel by McMahon is a bit messy. The story is scattered around. To avoid writing a messy review, I will focus on the pros first and then proceed to the cons.
What I really loved about the novel was the setting. It is set in an imaginary English village of Needlewick that exudes a feeling of warmth and a sort of magic. The village has a welcoming effect. The downside of living in such a small place is the fact that everyone knows one other and nothing is a secret, but that was part of the charm for me as a reader. I kept asking myself how far these characters would go in trying to reveal or hide their secrets. The novel also addresses some very interesting themes: the quest for happiness, the daunting passage from innocence to experience, subordination of women in society, the suffrage movement and family drama. These are just the sort of things I love to read about. But this also brings me to the cons.
These themes have a beginning in the novel, but the author did not elaborate on them and reveal her purpose of including them in the story, which made them sort of random and almost pointless in the end. The most explored theme was that of family drama, family dynamics; that was quite well done, as was, partially, the passage from innocence to experience, but even here, something simply lacked. I think the main problem of the story is that there really is no obvious story at all, no obvious purpose. It seems to me that the author wanted to write about family and women, but got stuck. Before her marriage, Sophia visits her Aunt Margaret, who is her mother’s sister. She is bequeathed her Cousin Helen’s – Margaret’s daughter’s – diary from childhood by Margaret’s neighbour Eleanor, who died only recently. It is never explained why Helen gave the diary to Eleanor, and why Helen passed it on to Sophia after all those years. The only explanation I have is that Eleanor wanted Sophia to see how horrible she was as teenager and have her learn something from it, but I’m not entirely sure about it. And, really, it angered me how this people shared everything. There was no privacy, everyone knew everything. That was disconcerting to me. Really, everyone who knew Helen read her diary, so when Sophia came to the village, she was practically naked before them.
Helen, who, based on the premise, seems to be an interesting character, did not really intrigue me. She did at first, but then she does not appear much in the novel at all. As a child, she believed in fairies and Sophia laughed at her for it. That humiliation made Helen mature from a child into a young woman and she grew to hate Sophia for taking something so intimate and only her own from her. That could be explored throughout the novel, but it wasn’t. Years later, when Sophia and Helen meet again, Helen is a robot, almost, and they never talk about the past or seek a reconciliation. They just co-exist and I would have wanted to have their peculiar relationship explored. This part of the novel had such potential, but nothing came of it.
I still don’t know whether I liked Sophia, the protagonist, or not. I see her as an empty person that shows her character only when she’s forced to do something. Otherwise, she’s just blank or spoiled. She can never make a decision. Even when she does, she’s not sure and has nothing planned. Her story is rather predictable, too. It could have been very interesting, as Sophia’s family is falling apart and the family drama was interesting to me, but again, it was not explored. So many stories were started in this novel, and the author came up with great themes, but none of them was explored, elaborated on, presented well to the reader.
In short, this novel was a disappointment to me in the end. I finished it in two days, so it was an enjoyable read, but it left me wanting more because it lacked so much. Katharine McMahon is a completely different writer now, but if you want to read anything by her, do not start with A Way through the Woods.
THIS MISS RATES: / (2.5 stars)