What would novels be without secrets, especially those skeletons that hang around in family closets for generations while everyone pretends they’ve never seen the bones, never mind that said bones have anything to do with them or their relatives? Still, not many people hide the existence of entire properties from their children and grandchildren, together with the secrets of who lived on those properties, how they came into the family, and what led to their destruction.
This is the situation that faces Emily Dawson, the heroine of Lauren Willig’s The Summer Country and the subject of my latest interview on the New Books Network. The rest of this post hints at the issues facing Emily, but it doesn’t begin to capture the richness and beauty of Willig’s exploration of nineteenth-century Barbados, both before and after the full emancipation of its slave population in 1838.
Secrets are woven through both halves of this story, alongside themes of love, power, revenge, ownership, and conscience. And the countryside is suffused by sugar: the brutality of its cultivation; the rum distilled from it; the scent of it on the air; the heat that makes it grow; the diseases and injuries caused by that heat and that crop and the poverty of those cut off from the rich, mostly white class of plantation owners who govern the island and its chief product. It’s a rich and heady brew, consumed on a virtual journey to a vanished world, and it’s hard to imagine a better time to undertake that journey than the middle of July with the temperatures hovering above 90 degrees.
As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction:
When Emily Dawson inherits a plantation in Barbados from her grandfather, Jonathan Fenty, in 1854, she is not quite sure what to make of the bequest. Emily, an English vicar’s daughter, has long been the “poor relation” of her merchant family, but the bigger surprise is that her grandfather never once mentioned the existence of this property, Peverills.
In the company of her cousins Adam and Laura, Emily embarks on a sailing vessel for the West Indies. In Bridgeport, further shocks await. Their contact, Mr. Turner—reputed to be the wealthiest man in Barbados—is of African descent; and neither he nor anyone else in his family shows much respect for the English visitors. When Emily expresses the desire to see Peverills for herself, the Turners explicitly warn her away. Emily persists, only to find the estate in ruins and the family next door eager to take her in. But Emily soon begins to wonder just what the neighbors have in mind. How many other secrets did her grandfather conceal?
In The Summer Country (William Morrow, 2019), Lauren Willig nimbly balances Emily’s experiences against her grandfather’s, interweaving the stories of three families across two timelines into a seamless whole. Better yet, she does it against the backdrop of a Barbados so beautifully realized that you will feel that you can smell the sugar cane burning and hear the singing carried on the wind.
And don’t miss Jennifer Eremeeva’s interview with C. W. Gortner about his new novel, The Romanov Empress—a story of Maria Fyodorovna, mother of the last tsar, Nicholas II, and cross-posted to New Books in Historical Fiction. It says a lot that even Rasputin takes a back seat in this book!