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Mystery and Imagination: two novels set on the Suffolk Coast


May sees the publication of two new books set on the Suffolk coast, novels which have certain similarities, but which are very different in style. One has been described as a thriller, the other as a haunting mystery. Both are engrossing novels which add to the growing list of recent fiction which use the vulnerable Suffolk coast as a character in its own right.

The first to be published is S. A. Harris’s Seahurst which is due to be released on May 15 by Salt Publishing. Sally Harris’s debut novel Haverscroft was also published by Salt in 2019. The other novel is Polly Crosby’s Vita and the Birds, slated to appear on May 25 and published by HQ, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. HQ also published Polly’s previous two novels: The Illustrated Child (2020) and The Unravelling (2020), both set on the Suffolk coast. I’m grateful to both Sally and Polly for giving me the chance to read pre-publication copies of these new books.

Seahurst is written in the first person, the protagonist being ‘Evie Meyer and her son Alfie [who] flee from her abusive partner Seth to spend New Year with her half-brother Luke at their late father’s summer house on the Suffolk coast, only to find ‘Seahurst’ abandoned and Luke missing’. For those who have read Haverscroft I’m sure they will be very happy to plunge again into a story where a house’s dark secrets lead the main character to question many aspects of their life. As with Haverscroft, I would have liked more description of the house at the beginning of the novel. I missed the brief description of the house as a ‘rectangular glass and steel building’ in Chapter 2, probably because I was reading too quickly. This led to some confusion. I liked the fact that the setting is clearly inspired by Dunwich with its abbey ruins; it's described as somewhere ‘…where the skeletons hang out of the cliff face’. The author uses the place’s susceptibilities to great effect.

Vita and the Birds is set in two main time periods, 1938 and 1997. In the first we meet Lady Vita Goldsborough who lives with her misogynistic and controlling brother Aubrey in Goldsborough Hall, a stately pile of uncertain vintage. A previous owner of the Hall had built a large glass building in a nearby reed bed, called locally ‘The Cathedral of the Marsh’. I admit that when I saw the title Vita and the Birds my mind went directly to Vita Sackville-West. I’m wondering if there is a deliberate connection there?

In 1997, following the death of her mother, Eve Blakeney returns to the coast and the rickety studio where she spent childhood summers with her beloved grandmother, Dodie. Eve hopes that the visit will help make sense of her grief. She discovers a bundle of letters that hint at the distressing story of Dodie’s relationship with Vita. As with Seahurst, the topic of controlling and coercive behaviour is a thread which runs through the narrative, more so here I think, as it is mostly not affected by present day debates. I’m sure the fictional setting for this novel is Walberswick which the author knows well. There are small hints, nothing obvious -- for instance when Eve ‘…had taken an hour to walk [from the studio] to the internet café, past the cathedral and across a rickety bridge that divided the village from the town.

One small criticism I have of the novel is that I found it difficult to connect the name ‘The Cathedral of the Marsh’ with what appeared to be a very large botanical glass house. Maybe just my lack of imagination.


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