Published by Allen & Unwin on October 1st 2015
When widowed sisters, Hester and Harriet, move together into a comfortable cottage in a pretty English village, the only blights on their cosy landscape are their crushingly boring cousins, George and Isabelle, who are determined that the sisters will never want for company. Including Christmas Day.
On their reluctant drive over to Christmas dinner, the sisters come across a waif-like young girl, hiding with her baby in a disused bus shelter. Seizing upon the perfect excuse for returning to their own warm hearth, Hester and Harriet insist on bringing Daria and Milo home with them.
But with the knock at their front door the next day by a sinister stranger looking for a girl with a baby, followed quickly by their cousins' churlish fifteen-year-old son, Ben, who also appears to be seeking sanctuary, Hester and Harriet's carefully crafted peace and quiet quickly begins to fall apart.
With dark goings-on in the village, unlooked-for talents in Ben, and the deeper mysteries in Daria's story, Hester and Harriet find their lives turned upside down. And, perhaps, it's exactly what they need.
I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Fear of the unknown is a topic of many novels, but rarely is it utilised as charmingly as in Hilary Spiers début novel Hester and Harriet.
Widowed sisters, Hester and Harriet live the cosy village life, keeping themselves very much to themselves. Only socialising when they absolutely have to, they see the world around them through very narrow eyes. Those eyes are opened wide when not only do they find their errant teenage nephew Ben on their doorstep, seeking an escape from his pushy parents, but they discover a young woman, scared, alone and desperately protecting her small baby. Through their actions, and by opening up themselves and their beloved home to these strangers, the sisters discover that maybe they’ve isolated themselves from too much, for too long.
‘Hester and Harriet’ is a joyous début from (among other things) playwright Hilary Spiers, that takes the ‘cosy mystery’ genre one step further by combining a genuine mystery with social commentary and a wry swipe at the insularity of village life, especially within a certain age bracket. Spiers has created in the two sisters a yin/yang partnership: both are quick to point out the other’s flaws or faux pas, but equally they support each other to the end, no matter the situation. Harriet is the more worldly of the two -a former teacher, very much in tune with world events and social issues – and it is her who is the more open to the pair’s new situation. Hester, on the other hand, is judgemental, reserved, and slow to forgive or open up to new experiences, causing many riffs, not only with Harriet but with their guests. Harriet is the more likeable of the partnership, and it’s very easy to bond with her as a character. Hester on the other hand, I found to be horrid most of the time, and her relentless chastising of teenager Ben became a chore by the first third of the novel, so by the time you approach the end of the novel and it’s still happening, I kind of zoned out on her character.
Ben is a delight. Clearly misunderstood and not given enough credit by his parents, the slow reveal of his many hidden talents is an earnest look at how, as a society, we really don’t do the younger generation justice. There’s loads of Ben’s out there, but unfortunately, there’s also an equal amount of Hesters, eager to decry anything and anyone that doesn’t meet their immediate expectations. Daria, the young girl found hiding in a bus shelter, feels underdeveloped and merely their as a plot point. All she seems to do is weep, feed her baby, or recount in broken English how she came to be in this situation. She forms a strong bond with Ben, but other than a few moments of fun, there’s little else to flesh out her personality.
Spiers’ background in the theatre is recognizable in the narrative for ‘Hester and Harriet’ as it often reads like extremely precise stage instructions: every action is described in minute detail and while at times it adds to the atmosphere, there are sections of the novel where it does drag a touch. A game of bridge feels like unnecessary padding that deviates too far away from the plot, and what’s divulged within could easily be placed in another, snappier situation. The language within the novel could be toned down a touch (it’s little bit ‘thesaurus heavy’) but there’s no denying Spiers’ talent for atmosphere as she takes a fairly mundane setting ( a village cottage) and makes it come alive every time. Again, I have no doubt that’s partly down to her background in the theatre (she’s also directed and acted) but it takes a natural talent to write so immersively.
‘Hester And Harriet’ is a great ‘lose yourself’ read with a strong, but not overpowering and preachy, message and a solid start to a publishing career.
Many thanks to Ruth Killick Publicity for inviting me to be part of the tour. Do check out the other stops on the tour, and tomorrow, Hilary Spiers will be my guest post, talking about the differences between writing for the stage and her novel.
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