When Alice McCleish’s gardener Brian unearths an object of great archaeological significance deep under the compost heap it is not only Alice who is affected. Her friendship with Margaret Allerton, retired Professor of Anthropology, as well as Alice’s family, friends and neighbours are all touched.
Alice and Margaret find themselves questioning long-held beliefs about the material and spiritual world that surrounds them. Both women find their lives transformed unalterably by their newfound companionship. Serendipity puts Alice’s nearest neighbour, the troubled Violet Turnbull, in touch with the enigmatic Avian Tyler, whose mystical ‘gift’ offers Violet a promise of liberation.
All the while an echoing voice from long, long ago hints at the history of the locality dominated by the standing stone circle that bestrides the skyline above the small community of Duddo. This harrowing story reveals the provenance of the artefacts found beneath that compost heap.
I seem to be increasingly drawn lately to books with older characters and this book was no exception, however dealing as it does with families, friendships and relationships it also has a much wider appeal than it might initially appear.
The main character is Alice, and the book traces the development of her friendship with Margaret, her fraught relationship with her daughter in law, her evolving relationship with her grandchildren and her involvement with her neighbour Violet and gardener Brian. Not forgetting Nipper the terrier, who is as much a character as any of his human companions.
Life for widowed Alice starts to change after her chance meeting with Margaret as she discovers a new friend and more importantly a confidant, something she lost with the death of her husband Callum. It also seems to spark a renewed interest in her surroundings and leads her to take on a gardener to oversee her garden, something that had been largely Callum’s domain. This not only introduces Brian and his family to the story but more importantly leads to the discovery of the ‘Cunning Woman’s Cup’. A discovery that will impact on all their lives in ways they could never have imagined.
Intertwined with this story is the story of the eponymous Cunning Woman who was actually called Mordwand and member of the Brigantes. These were a Celtic tribe in pre-Roman Britain who settled in an area largely covering Northern England, but especially Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire. A ‘Cunning Woman’ was a practitioner of folk medicine, a healer and wise woman. As her story unfolds it becomes more pertinent to the present day story as it not only explains where the cup came from, but also provides a link from the past to the present. It serves to highlight that the powers of healing and ‘seeing’ are not just restricted to the past.
Initially I will admit I found the Mortwand element an intrusion that took away from the contemporary story, however as its relevance became more apparent and her story also took on a different mood, it became far more compelling. However, as the two strands are clearly defined it is possible to choose to omit this element, though I’d recommend you stick with it.
I loved this story, it was very much character driven and given the wide cast of characters it was also very well-balanced and exceedingly well done. We get to see the problems faced by Alice’s family and how they resolve them. We discover the tragedy that has afflicted her neighbour Violet and we learn a lot about Margaret and her life. Everyone that is introduced plays a part and we are not left with without answers or resolutions. It is a story of everyday folk, going about their normal lives and coping the best they can. As well as being very character driven, the setting was also very much a living part of the story. The village with its church, its customs, the way of life, the scenery, the people and the everyday activities of farming and baking made it feel very much a real, warm and supportive community to be a part of.
What I really enjoyed about this book is the way in introduced and dealt both universal and contemporary topics in a quiet understated way, which possibly had more of an impact precisely because of that. It introduced the age-old themes of belief and spirituality and made you think about the nature of religion and how we ‘fit’ with our surroundings. It introduced the very modern ‘God’ of materialism and how we lose sight of what really matters in the pursuit of the temporal. It looks at grief and death and how we cope with loss. There was a strong natural spiritual element running throughout the book which also had a hint of the magical. I’ll be honest and say this would not normally appeal to me, but the context and background made it less paranormal and more mystical and acceptable. There was a sense that we’ve lost the ability to understand and appreciate the old folk customs and belief systems strongly allied to the natural world in the face of both organised religion and a modern and scientific approach to life. It certainly made me think.
While the above makes this book sound very deep, it is in fact written in a very warm and almost chatty way. The characters that inhabit the pages are very realistic and by turns funny, sad, annoying and very normal. It is testament to the author’s skill that she has written on the face of a gentle yet contemporary novel that manages to encompass so many themes and emotive issues without being preachy or evangelical. It’s only when you sit back and think about the story that you start to think about its themes.
This is a heartwarming story, that stays with you after you’ve finished reading and I have deliberately left out much of the plotline so you can discover all the characters and their stories for yourself. I can only recommend that you join Alice, her family and friends for a spellbinding read.
Available from Amazon