Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Review: Bhalla Strand by Sarah Maine

Bhalla Strand
Sarah Maine

If I'm being brutally honest, which I do always try to be, I did not have high expectations for this book. I was intrigued by the blurb and the fact that Ronald Frame (author of Havisham) recommends it on the cover, but it is let down by the cover. I know, I know, I shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I do. And yet, Bhalla Strand has proved to me that judging books by their cover is not necessarily the way forward. This is a thoroughly readable and compelling plot-based debut that would appeal to fans of novels with an arty/Edwardian/mysterious bent. 

Bhalla Strand is a dual narrative novel with one narrative in set in 2010 and the other set around 1910/1911. In 2010 Hetty inherits a dilapidated house on a remote island but when she arrives to examine the property a gruesome discovery is made - a set of bones are found buried underneath the conservatory. Using letters and diaries and the stories passed down through generations, Hetty sets out to discover who has been buried beneath the house and why. The background reveals that the house belonged to famous artists Theodore Blake and his wife Beatrice. In the parallel narrative we are with Beatrice who realises that her husband may not be the man she thought he was and who struggles against the attraction that draws her to Cameron, the Factor's son.

The plotting in this novel is very tight. There are so many twists and turns but the loose ends never get lost. Usually with a dual narrative novel it takes me a while to settle in a get a handle on what's going on in both. Here though, the differences are clear and the story set from the beginning. I really enjoyed both narratives but Beatrice's sticks in my mind. I have a soft spot for the Edwardian period anyway and this captures the tone of the age really nicely. Beatrice is passionate about women's rights and animal rights, both of which are a sticking point between her and her husband. Then Cameron comes along, all brooding looks and anarchical views, and makes her views grow that bit stronger and the distance between her and her husband that bit wider. I did find myself willing for the return of Beatrice's narrative but the parallels set up between the two were engaging and kept me reading through Hetty's narrative. 

I do have to admit that I found myself a bit lost when the plot began to focus on land ownership issues and other such confusing things. Still, with a story this tight, I can forgive a writer for confusing me (to be honest, it's not hard to do). 

Bhalla strand had me glued to the spot for the last hundred or so pages (literally sat still in my gym kit getting awfully chilly). I was desperate for all the questions to be answered and my goodness, were they answered. Everything came together perfectly, not in a predictable way, as there are a fair few twists along the way but it finished exactly how I hoped it would (albeit not quite how I thought it would). If you're a fan of a good mystery with an archaeological and arty background then I'd recommend Bhalla strand. It is excellently paced, those burning questions are held on to until the end, and the characters are surprisingly real. If none of that wins you over then the descriptions of the Hebridean landscape are pretty wonderful too.

Thank you to the publisher, Freight Books, for providing me with a copy for review.

Are you a fan of dual narratives done properly?


1 comment

  1. The cover doesn't do much for me either, but the Edwardian setting sounds intriguing. I suspect I'd find it more interesting than the 2010 narrative. Thanks for the review!


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