Castles in the Air by Alison Ripley Cubitt & Molly Ripley – 3.5*s

Castles in the Air



An eight-year-old child witnesses her mother’s secret and knows that from that moment life will never be the same.

After Molly, her mother dies, Alison uses her legacy to make a film about Molly’s relationship with a man she had known since she was a teenager. What hold did this man have over her mother? And what other secrets was her mother hiding?

Castles in the Air follows the life of Molly Ripley through the eyes of her daughter Alison. From Molly’s childhood in colonial Hong Kong and Malaya; wartime adventures as a rookie office girl in the far east outpost of Bletchley Park then as a young nurse in the city; tangled romance and marriage… to her challenging middle-age when demons from the past seem set to overwhelm her.

The writer in Alison can’t stop until she reveals the story of Molly’s past.
But as a daughter, does she have the courage to face up to the uncomfortable truths of Molly’s seemingly ordinary life?

As she unravels the private self that Molly kept secret, Alison realises that she is trying to find herself through her mother’s story. By trying to make sense of the past, can she move on with her future?

Honest yet unsentimental and told with abundant love and compassion, this is a profoundly moving portrait of a woman’s life, hopes and dreams.


Castles in the Air is a very personal memoir that opens with the author’s mother’s childhood and teenage years told largely through her diaries and letters. We then follow her into early adult hood and marriage and pick up in more detail her later years as both she and her husband struggle with depression.

It is a fascinating story as we follow Molly as she leaves England, with her parents, to take up residence in various colonial outposts due to their work as code breakers connected to Bletchley Park. From Hong Kong, to Singapore, Malaysia and Kenya, it traces a story of unrest, war and danger from an ex pat perspective. This is not a tale of aristocratic ‘Happy Valley’ style hedonism and decadence, but a portrayal of middle class, civil servants, whose life in the UK would have been far more humdrum.

As Molly grows we start to hear more about the mysterious, avuncular figure who will feature throughout her life. As we only see Molly’s letters it’s hard to know exactly what the relationship was, especially as she is by now a teenager and her letters display a bravado and selfishness that I suspect we might all have been guilty of at a similar age. What does transpire is that whatever the relationship, it wasn’t one sided and it continued to exert a hold over Molly for the rest of her life.
As Molly returns to the UK to train as a nurse, her letters and diary entries become more infrequent and less introspective so we rely more on the author to fill in the story of Molly’s marriage and life in Malaya with her husband during the Emergency. As she becomes a mother we get to know about the children and the wider family dynamics. As the author is increasingly able to speak for herself and tell the families story, we rely less on Molly’s memoirs and pick up more of the authors own, memories, especially when the family leave Malaya for New Zealand and yet another phase of their life.

For the most part I really enjoyed reading this, at times Molly’s letters could get repetitive and in her later years there was a similar sense of repetition. However I suspect this was not an easy thing to write, not only because of the emotions it must have inevitably invoked, but also in how to deal with the material at hand. I think it needs to be stated at this point with regard to editing and content this book clearly states that it is a memoir. While a memoir is often seen as being autobiographical there is a subtle difference. A memoir tells only about a certain period of time, or incidents in a person’s life, as they saw it. It is not chronological, or necessarily filled with historical fact and background, it purely reflects memories and feelings. In that regard that is what this book does. The author has chosen for the most part to largely let the letters and diary entries speak for themselves, without sanitising or editing the material. The reality is if Molly was pre-occupied, and repetitive and somewhat superficial, then that is what we are getting. There are authorial interjections to provide some historical context and background which Molly omits and I found helpful without being intrusive, but others may disagree.

I was particularly interested in Molly’s life in the Far East. I enjoy reading about colonial life and more so for countries I’ve been fortunate enough to visit. Having been to Kenya, Singapore, and Malaya, I could visualise the places and the cultural references. My own father was in the Royal Navy and based in Singapore and my father in law was in the Army and deployed in Malaya during the Emergency. Consequently the politics and history of the region, with its changing colonial dynamics had an added pertinence for me.

As we reach Molly’s later years and her struggles with work, her husband, and depression it is clear that none if this was really understand by the family at the time. It must have been a shock to discover the extent to which a much loved mother had been dissembling to maintain the façade that everything was alright. The fact that in this case, the author is also her daughter makes the discovery and the writing about it more poignant.

This memoir serves as a very real reminder to us all, that our parents are so much more than just parents. They have had their own lives and histories, however normal or different and it is often when they are gone, that we discover the individuals they really were.

I was alerted to this book by the author after I’d reviewed a fictional story set during the Emergency, so thank you for the opportunity to experience some first-hand memories. I received a review copy via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

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