by Virginia Moffat
published by: Unbound, 2017
Three generations of women are linked by repeating patterns of love, loss and conflict in times of war – the 1991 Gulf War, the 2nd World War and the 1st World War. This well-researched and very well written historical novel takes place in and near Echo Hall where the mysteries of thwarted love and disappointing relationships echo down the generations. In a climate of suffocating English reserve, women are kept in their place and silenced, while men go to war or are imprisoned for their pacifist beliefs. There are echoes of Wuthering Heights: love turns to obsession and bitterness, and the atmosphere of the novel is one of dark brooding and revenge. There is even a character called Earnshaw.
When Phoebe Flint visits Echo Hall in 2014 she begins to uncover the story of her family, the Flints (aptly named) who owned a stone quarry. Virginia Moffat has structured the novel in a very satisfying way: from the present we work our way back in time through the generations of Flints, to see the origins of all the sadness, then we travel back to the present again so that the story is resolved. A very pleasing arc.
The voices of each character are effectively evoked by mirroring the speech patterns of the appropriate time (1990s, 1940s and Edwardian). And there is just enough historical accuracy to make the story completely believable, rather than striving for effect by including too much detail, which often happens in historical fiction.
If I have a criticism, it’s that the book is overlong; as the layers of family loss repeat themselves and accumulate, rather than making the story more powerful, the tragic effect is dulled. The repetition also means characters from each generation tend to blur. Initially I saw this as a fault, but on reflection this demonstrates just how effective the echoes of the tragedy are.
Overall Echo Hall is a good, historical family saga with some memorable scenes: the sudden death of a spouse, the delivery of a baby without medical assistance and the shared pleasure of watching a meteor shower. It is a story to read at a leisurely pace, to enjoy the gradual accumulation of sadness and the discovery of how misunderstandings happen.