Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

‘Poor Chattie’ comes to Novel Nights

D.O. Hill’s daughter Chattie is best known from the  iconic portrait  taken near the start of her father’s partnership with Robert Adamson, but we have very few further calotype images of her (calotyping was too expensive for regular ‘family shapshots’) .

All we know from the playful letters, notes and sketches her father made for her, is that she remained central to his  busy life and that her early death marked the beginning of his declining years.

When I was talking to other Hill and Adamson fans last year in St Andrews, one long-time aficionado exclaimed ‘Poor Chattie!’ and a  collective sigh went up in recognition of a father’s grief and a young life snuffed out to soon.

Of course in historical fiction, the less we know about someone the easier it can be to incorporate them into the story we want to tell, and I’ve been thinking for a while that Chattie’s voice could be a useful vehicle for her father’s story if only because she provides a unifying thread,  from the ‘Adamson years’  through the 1850’s, when she and D. O. shared Rock House with his sister Mary and an extended family of cousins. This  was also when D. O. Hill grew particularly close to the artist Joseph Noel Paton, an alliance that would  have repercussions on D.O.’s personal and professional life.

Next week  I’m reading the beginning of a story set in 1854 when Chattie would have been fifteen and attending the first ever  Edinburgh school for young ladies. By now she is old enough to take a view on her and her father’s situation. I wonder what she made of it all, and what D. O. made of her? I imagine her confident, articulate and well brought up. But we all know how teenagers can jump to conclusions …

nnaudienceIf you’d like to hear my version of the (not so poor) Chattie, Novel Nights is taking place on Wednesday Jan 25th in its new venue at The Berkeley Square Hotel, Bristol at 8pm.

Several other local writers will be reading their work and there is a talk by historical fiction expert Celia Brayfield (also mentioned here).

Don’t forget to get your ticket in advance.


The Berkely Square Hotel, Bristol

Looks like a lovely venue.  I think Chattie will be in her element!


*Calotype of Chattie Hill by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson,  Scottish National Galleries collection https://art.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/42236/112194?overlay=download


An interview with Jane Davis (and free novel offer!)

jdbench034I first ran into Jane when someone recommended her historical novel ‘I Stopped Time’ which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I also loved ‘An Unchoreographed Life’, a contemporary novel about a dancer and single mother. But as well as being a great writer with seven published novels to her name, Jane is an example to all ‘indie’ authors in the absolute professionalism of everything she produces.  If you haven’t set eyes on one of Jane’s novels, I can guarantee you won’t be able to tell it apart from anything produced by a big publishing house – and there will almost certainly be fewer typos! She has won several awards and ‘An Unknown Woman’ has just won self-published book of the year. With ‘MMy counterfeit Self covery Counterfeit Self’ – set mainly in the fifties and very much redolent of my own childhood – hot off the press, what better time to have Jane along for an interview?

How would you describe your latest protagonist?

Lucy Forrester is a radical poet and political activist who is a cross between two great British eccentrics, Edith Sitwell and Vivienne Westwood. Having been anti-establishment all of her life, she’s horrified to find that she’s been featured on the New Year’s Honours list. During the book we find out what has shaped Lucy. At the age of nine, she contracted childhood polio. Staring death in the face defines a person. It alters their perception of life, whatever age they happen to be. Lucy has that same stubborn determined streak that Roosevelt displayed when he refused to accept the limitations of his disease. The refusal to wear leg braces, to face the world sitting down. She also resents overhearing her father say that not much is expected of her, and it makes her want to defy him. She becomes totally driven. And then her parents behave so shockingly that it releases her from feeling under any obligation to live up to their expectations for her, and so she adopts a bohemian lifestyle. And into this new life she’s leading walks the man who became her literary critique and on/off lover for the next 50 years.

What is one thing you love about your main character and one thing that drives you crazy?

I love Lucy’s unconventionality, her defiance, her eccentricity, and especially her dress-sense. (Think Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style.) One of my early reviewers called her fiercely moral, which I rather like. She’s my rebel with a cause. Because of the time she was born in, her fear of the Nuclear Bomb is a hangover from childhood. She takes part in the first of the CND rallies and marches from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston to protest about the nuclear threat, and, later, she takes up the cause of the British Nuclear Veterans. As for what drives me crazy… she can be quick to judge others but she’s blinkered when it comes to her own faults. In fact, that’s her downfall.

It’s the first time you’ve written about another writer, isn’t it?

 Yes, in some ways it’s my most personal novel to date. To bring Lucy to life, I had to draw on all of my insecurities, doubts and fears, writing about how it feels when you show your work to someone for the first time. How you manage to convince yourself that people will like you less when they understand what’s going on inside your head. Lucy’s formal schooling was curtailed by illness, and when she finally goes to school thinking that writing poetry is the one thing she’s good at, she’s told she doesn’t have the basic tools for job. That’s very much me. Someone who left school at sixteen, worked her way up in a company to Deputy MD and then had the audacity to attempt to write novels. I am the person who used to make up an answer on the spot when asked which university I went to! And of course, I’ve through the submission process. I know all about rejection – and I also know how overwhelming winning can be. How part of you never feels you deserve it, and how others will be quick to tell you that they didn’t think you deserved it, that it was a fix, or that you must have been related to the judges, and so how, when you fall from grace, it’s almost a relief. Order has been restored.

My Counterfeit Self is your seventh book. Does it get easier to write and publish over time, or is every process a “birthing” experience?

Getting a new novel out of the ground is always tough. It’s possible I make it tougher by not outlining or plotting. I like George R R Martin’s quote: ‘I’ve always said there are two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. Architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up.’ It takes me a good three months to get to know my characters. By the time I reach the 50,000-word milestone I think to myself, ‘I might just have a book on my hands’, but by 75,000 words I’m back to wallowing in self-doubt, unsure how to fight myself out of a corner. At 100,000 I may have an inkling of how it ends, but that doesn’t mean I’ll know how to get there. Every time you introduce a new angle, each ‘what if?’ question has to be pushed to its limits. Once the structure is in place, you go back and make every page shine.

That aside, certain parts of the publishing process are easier. I used to tackle all of the interior formatting and the creating of eBooks myself, but now I outsource and concentrate on making sure the proofs are as clean as they can be. The mechanics of publishing are far simpler than they were in 2012, because the process is familiar and technology is vastly improved, and getting better all the time.

Your novel, ‘An Unknown Woman’, was named Self-Published Book of the Year by Writing Magazine. Did that put extra pressure on your new release?

an-unknown-woman-finalDefinitely. The editor of Writing Magazine said that ‘An Unknown Woman’ would happily sit on any of the Big 5 publishers’ lists, that the writing was exemplary and that my production standards were outstanding. And I only found out about the win when ‘My Counterfeit Self’ was going into production! So yes, it caused some extra nail biting. The first edition of An Unknown Woman was (as far as I know) error free, something I had never achieved before. With a 120,000 word novel, a few typos usually past even the most eagle-eyed proof-readers (and I know there’s one in My Counterfeit Self).

Like most writers, I want to show progression from one book to another and so I try to do something a bit different, but not so different that it won’t appeal to my readers. You know what it’s like waiting for those first few reviews!  But I’m learning. All the time, I’m learning.

Thanks Jane for showing us so much of the book and yourself.

Here are all Jane’s Social Media links and a special offer for anyone who signs up to her newsletter.

Social Media Links:

Universal Buy Link: https://books2read.com/u/4AgQdK
My website: http://www.jane-davis.co.uk
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JaneDavisAuthorPage/?fref=ts
Twitter: https://twitter.com/janedavisauthor
Google Plus: https://plus.google.com/+JaneDavisAuthor/posts

Pinterest: https://uk.pinterest.com/janeeleanordavi/boards/
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6869939.Jane_Davis
Amazon Author Page:


halftruthsandwhiteliesReaders who sign up to Jane’s newsletter will receive a free copy of her novel, ‘I Stopped Time’. http://eepurl.com/bugqnr

Jane promises not to bombard subscribers with junk! She only issues a newsletter when she has something genuinely newsworthy to report.


To healthy obsessions

photo courtesy ASM Media-PR

photo by Alan Morrison, ASM Media-PR

Going to the first ever St Andrews Photography Festival was such a thrill, only part of which was having my first ever one woman show.  I’m happy to say the show was everything I wanted it to be with an attentive and appreciative audience. But in a way the real thrill was discovering I wasn’t the only one obsessed with the lives of a small group of people (all of whom died over 100 years ago) and their photographs. Which of course I knew to be the case. But it was quite something for my obsession to be making me part of something and to discover a shared obsession could manifest itself in so many amazing ways.

Obsessives are undeterred by rain

Obsessives are undeterred by rain

On my first day, on a rain-soaked photo tour led by Rachel Nordstrom (head of University Photographic Collections, organiser of everything and everybody) I met a collector and producer of stereoscopic photographs who in a gap between showers whipped out an i-pad  and  treated us to some of his creations. At the evening talk by world authority Dr Sara Stevenson (mentioned here)  I was approached by someone trying to uncover the whole of D. O. Hill’s early (pre-calotyping) life.  Then at dinner,  (gulp – I was slightly star-struck to be in the company of several early photography luminaries) I sat opposite Rob Douglas who creates his own modern-day calotypes according to John Adamson‘s original instructions. Finally, at my own event on Friday evening there were people who had come to the same point from completely different angles:  a lady who was interested in Hill and Adamson because of  photographs taken by her great grandfather, and a descendant of one of  the ministers who sat for D.O. Hill’s Disruption painting.

What all of us came to find was the sudden the ability to air or  unpick details of  St Andrews in the 1840s without having to explain or defend our interest. And we could learn from each other far more effectively than consulting a library or internet site. Rob Douglas – whose hands-on workshop I had missed – had already shone a new light on just what a painstaking business it is to produce a single calotype negative and  Sara Stevenson made a sincere plea for anyone to contribute any materials or knowledge they might have stored away in a dark corner.  And of course there were those special moments when a complete stranger echoes your own long-held thoughts – like the audience member who saw the image on my programme and sighed deeply,  ‘Oh, poor Chattie!’  As if Hill’s daughter were a family friend. Because, of course, to us that’s what she is.

In the word ‘obsession’ there’s a hint of the pejorative, and I guess the adjective most commonly used of it would be ‘unhealthy’. You can certainly recognise an obsessive by a certain gleam in the eye and a tendency to catch you by the sleeve if you try to walk away. Yes, they can become boring.   But I think we are mostly harmless and although some obsessions might have a touch of the dark side, most of them are good for us.  They give us a a reason to learn and to connect with fellow obsessives. They lead us to places and experiences that help us grow. I have a friend who’s into Lord Nelson and another hell-bent on discovering all there is to know about Lady Ottoline Morrell. Why? Well why not? Although I’ve tried to unpick the origins of my obsession, it doesn’t really matter where it came from. These interests give us, if not a reason to go on, something to fall back on at least. Maybe this is what they call a hinterland.

Since coming home from St Andrews I’ve been to see the  Painting with Light exhibition at Tate Britain where the  Disruption Painting has been on show.  The commission for this painting was Hill’s original motivation for trying out the use of calotypes and the beginning of his partnership with Robert Adamson, but having begun it in 1843 he didn’t complete it until 1866, close to the end of his life. I thought this journey might be a kind of final leg or even post-script to my research in to Hill and Adamson, but of course it might just be a new chapter.


Rodger’s photo of Hill on a biscuit – unreliable evidence?

The picture raised so many questions for me, not least the troubling issue of the colour of D. O. Hill’s hair which I’d previously mentioned to  John Fowler, author of Mr Hill’s Big Picture, in which Hill is described as having ‘flowing blond locks’. Really? From the calotypes you would say that Hill is dark-haired, and in this Thomas Rodger portrait of 1855, possibly grey. In London I got as close to the picture as I possibly could to make my own assessment and I now I’m not sure. Brown with blond streaks I would say. Or has something been painted over?

Oh dear  I am boring you now, but these things matter to obsessives like us.  Mr Hill’s hair is definitely something to discuss next year in St Andrews.


St Andrews Photography Festival – being part of it

“Celebrating 175 Years of Photography in the home of Scottish Photography”.


By invitation!

When I found out about the first St Andrews Photography Festival taking place this summer, I had a pang of regret that I wouldn’t be there to see it. However, in an unexpected  turn of events, I will actually  be part of it as I’ve been invited to read my historical fiction in a festival event on September 9th. I can’t think of anything more special than to take my work to the place where the story began, and present it to people who share my enthusiasm for early photography and its exponents.

I realise most of you will know about this via my outpourings on social media, but with the festival kicking off on August 1st (my event is Sept 9th) I thought it would be good to post about it here, especially for those who aren’t on Facebook where the festival has its main site.

Here’s a link to the full programme of exhibitions and events put together by the University Library Special Collections Department and running from August 1st to September 11th.


Please share it with anyone you know who has an interest in early or contemporary photography, especially if they happen to be in or near Fife.

And here’s a description of my event.

hillbell_st andrews

In Sunshine and In Shadow
Stories surrounding the photographs of Robert Adamson and David Octavus Hill, 1843-48

Fiction writer and St Andrews graduate Ali Bacon brings her own words to the calotypes of Hill and Adamson and lends a voice to those who sat for them.
In this series of readings you will meet Elizabeth Johnston Hall of Newhaven, Jane Adamson (sister to John and Robert) and literary critic Elizabeth Rigby, and hear how an encounter with early photography changed all of their lives.
Presented with illustrations from the University Special Collections.

It’s on Friday September 9th, 5.30 – 6.30 pm,
Martyrs Kirk Research Library
80 North Street, KY16 9 Saint Andrews

Again, I know very few of you can be there, but do spread the word. If you can be there, please register for a free ticket.

This post will be top of my blog page for a few weeks to come!


Robert Louis Stevenson – a bit of a find

the Bookman 1913

Robert Louis Stevenson commemorative issue

My daughter unearthed this in an Oxfam shop a few months ago and just got round to bringing it home. It has all the fascination of an old book, or in this case and old magazine with a hessian (?) cover and what I suppose is an old version of a ‘perfect’ binding, i.e. the pages that were once stuck together are now falling apart.

It’s a series of tributes to the writer and also has some wonderful plates – photographs of RLS and his family and also of paintings illustrating his works.

Essay by Charles Lowe

Essay by Charles Lowe


I’m embarrassed at how little I know about a writer who has been a household name for his adventure stories and the unforgettable Child’s Garden of Verses, not to mention those BBC Sunday serials of the sixties.   I can still see Alan Breck and David Balfour in black and white!

The other reason my daughter pounced on this is that one of the articles in the magazine was also written by an ancestor of ours who knew Stevenson as a student in  Edinburgh. I think reading the rest of the book – and more of RLS himself – might be my first New Year’s resolution.

This plate carries the text from The Master of Ballantrae,
The words and music seemed to pour out of his own heart and his own past and to be aimed directly at Mrs Henry.”
Could be a good place to start.

Illustration of Ballantrae,

Illustration from the Master of Ballantrae, Hodder and Stoughton, W. Hatherell

A close shave, or how I nearly wrote the wrong book

While writing the WIP (yes, first draft may be finished but much progress still to be made) I’ve been plagued by the question of genre. I really only plumped for the novel form because it’s the one I’m familiar with.  At the same time, I was aware of keeping as closely as I could to ‘the facts’ and simply making up the bits I didn’t know, exploring above all else where and how the story ended. But new facts were popping up all the time. If I included them all and filled all the gaps that could be filled, surely it would be non-fiction?

Galileo's Daughter coverNext question – what is narrative non-fiction exactly? My one role model for this was Dava Sobel whose Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter I enjoyed years ago before I took up writing. But my own copies had disappeared and my memories were hazy – what was the balance of exposition, action, dialogue? How much drama is there in a drama-documentary?  It was probably time to read some more NNF, but I somehow had enough other things to do. One thing I did know, if my book turned into non-fiction, it would begin and end with the artefact that frames a big part of the story, a painting that’s still in existence today.

Then, as I pushed and panted towards the end,  turning from time to time to my favourite sources, I stumbled on a footnote I had somehow missed referring to a non-fiction (but not academic) book that sounded intriguing. With a chapter of my rough draft still to write, I banged in an order and the book arrived a couple of days later. I was transfixed. Yes, it was highly readable (is this what they mean by ‘narrative’?) and covered a big proportion of the material I was using, albeit from a different perspective. It added appreciably to my knowledge. Its main focus was the picture in question. I gobbled  up Mr Hill’s Big Picture in unseemly haste. Here was the book I had almost tried to write.

Today I started some clearing out and found Galileo’s Daughter in my bookcase. It had been there all along. Clearly fate had intervened – or did I just not want to find it? I don’t think I’ll be needing it now. But Mr Hill’s Big Picture has been useful in all sorts of ways. The author has been really helpful and shared some of his knowledge of the picture (no longer on public display) with me. Most of all, I know I was right to stick to fiction.




The Physic Garden: too good to dissect

‘The first time I saw Jenny Caddas she was taking a swarm of bees.’

The Physic GardenIt’s a great feeling when you fall in love with a book on the first page, or even the first line, and that’s what happened to me with The Physic Garden by Catherine Czerkawska. The voice is that of William Lang, speaking in 1802. But if the scene he describes is idyllic, we soon know that this is not to last. William, now an old man, is going to tell us how from this fine beginning, everything went wrong. In fact things are already going wrong, because the Physic Garden, owned by Glasgow University and where William will soon be head gardener, is already in decline polluted by the expanding type foundry, trampled on by marauding students (plus ca change!) and largely ignored by a medical faculty hooked on the new science of anatomy. But amongst the professors there is one exception, Thomas Brown, a botany lecturer, with whom William strikes up an unlikely and life-changing friendship.

William’s story is an essentially private one of an old man seeing how in his younger days he was too naïve, but still cannot entirely regret that naivety. But as in the best historical fiction the individual becomes a prism through which we view the whole place and time in which he lived. We feel the pressures on a young man suddenly becoming the bread-winner for his large family, his anger at a feckless sister, his concern over a sickly child, his hero-worship of his fine new friend. On a wider scale we see his disquiet at the apparent supremacy of surgery over physiological remedies and the new forms of sickness and poverty arriving in the wake of industrialisation. We also glimpse the radicalism he will embrace in his later life.

But mostly this is a book about friendship and although the romance hinted at in the first line plays a part, William knows there are more enduring forms of love. He reflects most of all on how he and Thomas Brown forged a bond that transcended social boundaries but broke apart too violently ever to be mended.

The pace is measured, the language has an elegiac quality, but this is not a pretty story. It is beautiful and sad with just a touch of the macabre.  It also contains the seeds of hope and of William’s eventual redemption. True to the form of an old man, our narrator thinks nothing of jumping forward or back in the story to explain something, or just to delay the parts that pain him the most. But this book is all about the voice, and once William had my ear, I was never going to stop listening.

One day I might think about how this book achieves what it does, but for now I’m just going to sit back and admire it.



Research is freedom. I agree with Sarah Dunant.

I’m not quite sure what I expected from last night’s Historical Fiction Masterclass run by Writers and Artists, but with around fifty people crowded in a room in Bedford Square on a very rainy night in London town, it was more about the chemistry of the two presenters – Celia Brayfield and Sarah Dunant – than learning how to craft a novel.

Sarah Dunant

Sarah Dunant

So I’m pleased that I knew enough about the crafty stuff (in theory anyway!) to sit back and watch as the sparks flew and ideas were thrown around. What soon became clear is that historical fiction (and maybe all fiction?) involves a number of paradoxes:

Celia Brayfield

Celia Brayfield

  • the reader seeks reassurance in the similarity of past and present while marvelling at the differences
  • the writer must tap into the consensual understanding of a historical period as well as making it fresh( i.e authenticity is about convincing the reader rather than being totally faithful to historical facts)

When the audience were invited to nominate favourite reads other dilemmas came up, like the question of whether to use a voice that is clear and accessible to the reader or one that reflects the ‘otherness’ of the period/character. Books of each variety were equally loved.

As often happens with these things there was really one thing in particular I latched on to. As Jean Burnett says here, we can’t ever portray the past exactly as it was because we will always reflect it through the prism of our own understanding and beliefs (and because of this we can hopefully do it  – see above! – ) in a way that will appeal to our contemporaries. BUT Sarah Dunant made the point that even if we can never know exactly how people spoke to each other in a given period, or which sounds smells or tastes they actually noticed, we must give it our best shot, i.e. our guess must be the guess of an expert, and one that no one could actually prove wrong. Sadly there wasn’t much time for discussing how this conflicted with Celia’s preference for allowing fiction to dictate over fact in certain circumstances, so that’s another of the paradoxes we had to consider.

Going back to the research question, to be an historical expert is a daunting task for a non-historian but I sided with Sarah in appreciating that knowledge in this case is actually freedom. The writer must make choices in what to include or leave out but these choices should be based on knowing all there is to know. Research can throw up things that make us tear our hair out and sometimes feels like a straight-jacket, but it’s not. The more research we do the more stuff we have to use.

What we do with it then is up to us.



Man writes woman: The Ginger Tree

ginger Tree coverWriting a character is always a leap of the imagination, so is it any more of one to take on a member of the opposite sex? Maybe not, and I certainly haven’t had a problem with creating and speaking for the odd romantic hero, but many years ago when I first read The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd I remember empathising so deeply with the heroine that I found it hard to  believe her story had been written by a man.

Now Bristol HNS have chosen the theme of ‘gender and character’ for a forthcoming meeting I’ve had a great excuse to skim through it again and look for what makes it so successful.

It’s the story of a naïve (but increasingly headstrong) Scots girl (Sorry about my battered copy. I never did see the TV version) who travels to China in the early 20th century to marry a military attache. She has a daughter with him but the marriage is a flop and she ends up having an illegitimate son by a Japanese General. Abandoned by all but one distant friend and deprived of the right to see either child, she is forced to rebuild a life for herself in Japan.

Picking it up after almost 20 years, I still can’t answer the question of what makes the telling of this story so compelling, but here are a few observations.

  1. I’d completely forgotten it was a first person narrative, written partly as a journal and sometimes in letters. The voice is consistent but the tone and the content alters, depending on who she is talking to. All of it a great window on character. Is the use of first person more persuasive? In this case I think it is (food for thought!)
  2. The opening which describes Mary’s long voyage to China in the company of a chaperone is prefect. We see how as she travels further east she is leaving behind not just her old life but also many of her inhibitions. We immediately get the contrast of what can be put in a letter home to Mama and what can’t. It sets the tone perfectly and illustrates the conflicts that are going to arise later.
  3. The crux of the story is her love affair with Kentara. Conducted in short episodes and almost total secrecy I’d forgotten that it takes up a tiny fraction of the book, but of course I remember it because its intensity dominates not just Mary’s life but also the narrative as a whole.
  4. Less is more also goes for the sex scenes which are all conducted with the sliding door firmly closed. Never has ‘he came to me’ born more meaning! Restraint (at least in the telling) is the order of the day here, which feels right for the period and the character, but there’s plenty of unspoken emotion bubbling under the surface.
  5. The book is a great illustration of elipsis, or ‘jump cut.’ The big scenes we are waiting for (husband Richard discovering she is pregnant but not by him) are often skipped completely in favour of the agony of the wait and the drama of the fall-out. Maybe the action scenes are the victims of the journal form (she can hardly write them as they happen) but it still works really well and we are taken through 40 years at just the right tempo. (Music to my ears as I struggle with a  thirty-year time-span.)

As well as Mary’s emotional journey the account of Japanese life and society is a rich and fascinating back-drop adn there’s lots of  history and culture to soak up. But it’s Mary’s heart that speaks to us, often between the lines of her everyday existence.  I just spotted this quote which pretty well sums it up.

By the end, it is the reader who sheds the tears his heroine has kept back for almost 40 years. — Nicholas Shakespeare, Sunday Telegraph

Looks like it’s now out on Kindle. You have no excuse!




Dancing for Uncle Joe

russian winter coverI was sent a copy of Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter some time ago and for some reason it languished on my shelf, not rejected but simply neglected, until a passing friend happened to mention she was stuck for something to read. Try this, I said, and tell me if it’s any good. Within a few days she said how much she was enjoying it and at our monthly reading group she was so clearly taken with it, I made a plea for ‘no spoilers’ and  started reading it straight away. I have to say this really is a gorgeous book and exactly the sort of thing I like.

It’s about three people all living in present-day Boston: Nina a ballet dancer who defected from Stalin’s Russia who has decided to auction off her stunning collection of jewellery; Drew, the young representative of the auction house handling the sale, and Grigori, an academic who’s life work has been the translation of the poems of Viktor Elsin, the husband Nina left behind in Moscow and who did not survive the Stalinist terror. But if Nina can rid herself of the jewels, the act of doing so sirs up searing memories. Grigori too, an adopted child still mourning the death of his wife, has never come to terms with the mystery of his Russian birth parents and the fact that Nina has always refused to acknowledge any connection to him. Through all three characters the story of Nina and her life with the Bolshoi Ballet under Stalin unfolds at just the right pace until a whole skein of false assumptions is unravelled and a new set of connections revealed.

What do I like about it? The narrative,  carried entirely by the main characters, is taught, but absorbing rather than gripping, allowing us plenty of time to see the lives of other characters like Grigori’s friend, the dissident poet Zoltan, Nina’s fellow dancer Polina who is prey to constant anxiety and fear, or Viktor’s aristocrat mother (a kind of white Russian Miss Haversham) whom he has to hide behind a plywood wall. The story has many layers but everything is germane to the themes of how  love and loyalty are compromised under a reign of terror.  And by the end I knew so much more about Stalinist Russia, the life of a ballerina and even amber jewellery.

It’s interesting to ask why I didn’t pick this book up sooner. I certainly think the title is bland, and the cover similarly conventional. Nothing about the appearnce of the book stands out, which goes to show how much these things count. Of course this is a conventional novel ,  but in a good way. It delivers in all it sets out to do and I found it entirely satisfying. Who could ask for more?