If your book features Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, and the history of his writing I’m going to read it. That is a fact of life. As soon as I read the description for Anne Allen’s latest Guernsey novel, I was so excited to see my favourite author feature so heavily in the plot.
I can’t easily describe my personal preference for Victor Hugo’s novels anymore, especially as my three favourite Hugo novels would make up a majority of my favourite novels of all time and they formed the basis of all three of my favourite musicals of all time. Les Misérables is the one that started it all as the epic basis of my go-to favourite musical, which fully converted me into a musical theatre fan, The Man Who Laughs became The Grinning Man which is easily my favourite modern musical ever and every time I read Notre-Dame de Paris it becomes my favourite novel all over again, it was also included in my Undergraduate dissertation and essays, and it became my favourite Disney animated film and stage musical. So, it’s all very close at the top.
I will give a content warning for this novel and by extension this review, for divorce and domestic abuse. As I’ve recently experienced the emotional rollercoaster that is job hunting, and as we’re in a difficult time for employment, I will also state that this novel focuses heavily on employment, and features Tess securing a new job.
How close were Victor Hugo and his copyist?
1862 Young widow Eugénie faces an uncertain future in Guernsey. A further tragedy brings her to the attention of Monsieur Victor Hugo, living in exile on the island only yards away from Eugénie’s home. Their meeting changes her life and she becomes his copyist, forming a strong friendship with both Hugo and his mistress, Juliette Drouet.
2012 Dr Tess Le Prevost, Guernsey-born but living in England, is shocked to inherit her Great-Aunt’s house on the island. As a child, she was entranced by Doris’s tales of their ancestor, Eugénie, whose house this once was, and her close relationship with Hugo. Was he the real father of her child? Returning to the island gives Tess a fresh start and a chance to unlock family secrets.
Will she discover the truth about Eugénie and Hugo? A surprise find may hold the answer as Tess embraces new challenges which test her strength – and her heart.
Reading this book felt like being swaddled in a blanket. Yes, it’s the blanket that you use to wipe away those weepy tears when the emotional moments hit a little too close, but a warm blanket, nonetheless. As much as I love reading dark, high tension and emotion narratives I also thoroughly enjoy slice of life contemporaries, as long as my expectations are set early on, and Tess’s perspective in 2012 offers so much realism in a simple but enjoyable narrative. It’s a very refreshing read as you experience both the motions of her day to day life and the extremities of changing job, house renovations and changes to a parent/child relationship. Tess’s friendships and romance, despite how immediate the switch from initial impressions appears, are all genuinely lovely and a pleasure to read. Whereas I typically read dark narratives, it was interesting to see the darker and more emotional aspects of more, unfortunately, everyday lives portrayed especially through the eyes of a practising doctor. However, that’s not to say that this book doesn’t pack in enough emotion to make you weep. It only took a few lines from Tess’s dad Ted for me and I highly commend Allen for channelling this into just a few lines.
On the other hand, if you know that you are not a fan of contemporaries where everyone gets along swimmingly then this may not be the book for you. There are serious conflicts between very particular characters and these are given the narrative space the seriousness of the issue deserves, however, they quickly become distanced from either the primary character, Tess in this case, or from the writing style as in the diary entries. However, I did get the impression whilst reading that if any characters, across both timelines, were going to create conflict then they were quickly moved to another off-page location, and communication happens via another character at one remove, or they became quickly more palatable and even lovable as soon as the next chapter. The reader’s reaction to this is going to be solely personal preference, but when I had noticed it became slightly jarring.
The dramatic events of 2012 were also written so that you expect them to be more impactful throughout the narrative, but whereas the event itself is high in impact they were often either quickly revealed to be minor or solved meaning that if you read quickly it can feel that you’re tearing through the book and these events do not land with as much emotional impact as initially expected. Reading through The Inheritance I would have preferred to have been given a further insight into Tess’s thoughts using the first-person perspective. I believe this would have invited further consideration of each diary’s content, rather than repeating key episodes, and given an insight into those more dramatic moments.
Eugénie’s narrative, shown through her diaries, is far rawer due to the sheer amount of trauma she experiences both at such a young age and later in life. Luckily, her tale is also one of positivity despite adversity thanks to the friendships she forms with those around her, including the eminent Victor Hugo. A testament to Allen’s imaginative skill, it was fascinating to see an ultimately fictional character, based on Hugo’s historical enigmatic French copyist, blend in so easily with the historical figures. In Allen’s depictions of Hugo and Juliette Drouet, it is easy to see why they became such fast and firm friends of Eugénie and they brought the warmth of classic period pieces which contributed to the comfort of this narrative despite the historical and current hardships. It was also fascinating to see the relatively small episodes of history, namely the release dates of Hugo’s novels, happen simultaneously with large historic episodes and Hugo’s key reactions. By capturing so much history in one novel you’ll find yourself considering a trip to Guernsey to soak even more in.
Unfortunately, whilst reading I did feel as if there were episodes almost missing from Eugénie’s diary, such as those periods of Hugo’s absence, which would have enhanced her character development. Due to this, especially in the later years, causes her diaries to appear as a slightly impersonal list of events rather than deeper reflections. While this may be more realistic in fiction it can quickly become a stranger reading experience than anticipated. I simply wanted to see more of her reactions and reflections on the dramatics of her later life. Similarly, the mysterious elements, at the point at which they’re addressed in the narrative, are handled very quickly and frankly.
Overall, while both narratives had their positives and detractors, I found this novel to be the perfectly enjoyable pallet cleanser from a typically darker reading taste. If you enjoy historical diary fiction and slice of life contemporaries, you are certain to find something enjoyable in Allen’s latest novel. I would also highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys travel fiction as I found my mind wandering to the possibility when travel calms and COVID-19 has become relatively more controlled, of travelling to Guernsey to soak in the promised views and history as outlined throughout this novel.
Have you ever visited Guernsey or read any novels set there? Did you know about the connection between Victor Hugo and the island?
The Inheritance by Anne Allen was published by Fly on the Wall Press in April 2019.
I was contacted by the publisher with a list of possible books to review and I selected to read The Inheritance based on the synopsis. Following this I was granted access to an ebook copy in exchange for this honest review. Thank you very much to Fly on the Wall Press for the opportunity to read The Inheritance for review.
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