Book review: One Cornish Summer by Liz Fenwick
Tucked away in the southern-most part of Cornwall is the rugged Lizard peninsula, a coastal haven of tiny fishing ports and gorgeous sandy bays, and a source of inspiration for both writers and artists.
It’s an awe-inspiring place that gets under your skin and was put firmly on the reading map in the mid-20th century by author Howard Spring whose many Helston-based novels seduced readers into seeking out this hidden Cornish gem.
Eighty or more years later, another writer is finding inspiration in the rich history and beauties of the Lizard for a string of compelling novels, including the critically acclaimed Under a Cornish Sky, A Cornish Affair and The Returning Tide.
A Massachusetts-born expat, Fenwick fell in love with an Englishman and now enjoys family life in beautiful Cornwall whilst channelling her literary talents and energies into atmospheric and beautifully crafted novels that connect with both the landscape and the human condition.
In One Cornish Summer, Fenwick moves into top gear for an emotion-packed, cross-generational story of two women from the same family struggling to cope with the present because of secrets in their past.
When historian and academic Hebe Courtenay is diagnosed with genetic, early-onset Alzheimer’s, the fiercely clever and independent 54-year-old struggles to make sense of what it will mean for her, her job and the man she loves.
The doctors tell her she has only about six months of good cognitive ability left but already most of her memories seem ‘just out of reach.’ By chance, Hebe reads in a magazine that historic Helwyn House on the Lizard peninsula, where her family spent many summers, is for sale by auction and she becomes determined to buy it.
Once home to a 17th century royalist called Thomas Grylls – a man who was ‘a lover, a hero’ and ‘a model Cavalier’ – the crumbling Cornish mansion with a mystery in its past has a special place in Hebe’s heart… for more reasons than one.
Meanwhile, Hebe’s niece and society photographer Lucy Trevillion is having her own crisis after a scandalous affair with a high-profile married man. The newspapers have got hold of the story and 28-year-old Lucy seizes the chance to follow her aunt to Cornwall.
Curious about what has driven Hebe there after so many years, Lucy also has to face up to a dark secret she has kept since her last summer at Helwyn House with her dysfunctional family more than ten years ago.
As Lucy battles with her demons, Hebe finds comfort in remembered snatches of the John Donne poems she knows and loves so well, and tries to disconnect herself from the man at the centre of her life back in London.
But, in the famous words of Donne, ‘no man is an island, entire of itself,’ and both women must accept that the only way forward is to come to terms with their past, and embrace life and love whatever the future holds.
Fenwick brings us her best novel yet in One Cornish Summer as she casts her humane and discerning eye over family bonds, relationships, the nature of love, and the power of the landscape to inspire, console and renew.
There are moments of intense and tear-jerking poignancy as Hebe struggles with her cruel illness and tries desperately to cling on to the memories that are slowly being fractured beyond repair. But there is hope here too, the dark humour that helps the afflicted to keep on battling, and the exquisite truths of Donne’s poetry that litter the remnants of Hebe’s remembrance.
Serious issues are tackled with sensitivity and insight, stunning Cornwall takes a lead role, and local history comes gloriously alive, but Hebe and Lucy are the undoubted stars… two women finding solace in their unexpected friendship and by sharing their secrets, uncovering the things that really matter in life.
Immaculately researched and emotionally astute, this is a fabulous holiday read with heart, drama, history and humour.
(Orion, trade paperback, £12.99)