When Still Waters first dropped through my letterbox at its full 672 pages, I wasn’t phased. I usually read epic fantasy which can easily be a third again as long. But this wasn’t fantasy, it was a fictional story of a girl’s attempt to find herself amidst family tragedy and wartime hardship.
We first meet Tess Delamere as a little girl of about six having a nightmare, the same nightmare she’s had for as long as she can remember. She’s younger, and very naughtily toddling down to the beach to play in the surf. She decides she can’t go in the sea as mummy has told her it’s dangerous. So she goes to the breakwater, taking off her shoes as she goes to feel the glorious sand between her toes. At the breakwater she plonks down on her bottom and promptly loses her shoes in the water. She knows she’s going to get into so much trouble, so she leans over, wondering whether she can retrieve her shoes. Suddenly the hateful boy from next door appears and sweeps her up in his arms, telling her not to look at the water. She strains in his arms and looks around to see something awful…
This forms the backbone of the whole book – was the dream real? If so, what was in the water? As the book goes on, the author reveals more and more about the mysterious dream and what it means for Tess and her widowed father. The book is all the richer for the vibrant characters and location the author recreates. Tess and her father live in the Norfolk Broads. We follow as Tess grows up and a series of more or less tragic events happen in her life, such as her father’s remarriage, a terrible fire in the family home, and more. Tess finds out more about the mother she never knew, a little from her father, and a little from her own detective work.
A parallel story follows the life of the Australian boy Mal. When his father turns up unexpectedly, his life takes a turn for the worst. A layabout, a show-off, a drunk and violent with it, Mal still idolises and mollycoddles his father, something his little brother Petey can’t manage. After a fishing trip goes tragically wrong, Mal’s father loses his glister. Eventually Mal and his mother find themselves free and enjoying the unusual state of being pretty happy.
When war breaks out and Mal joins the air force, it’s only a matter of time before he and Tess meet and fall in love. By this time the reader has waited about 400 pages for the inevitable to happen! But the inevitable is fraught with mishaps and rivals for Tess’ affections. And at times you feel like Tess will never know what that dream really meant, but the author very cleverly leaves it until right at the end to lay everyone’s minds at rest.
This saga is very readable, though with maybe one or two slightly unbelievable coincidences, and the characters of the people of mid-twentieth century Norfolk, especially Tess’ neighbours the Throwers, give it a down to earth tone that’s very comforting, like being snuggled up in a warm duvet. The author has clearly done plenty of research into the era and you feel transported back to the time of rationing and land girls. For me, a surprisingly good read.