Thursday, 4 September 2014

Between the Mountains and the Sea: A Cumbrian Trilogy by Ruth Sutton

A Good Liar

I knew from the opening sentences that I was going to like these books - something to do with the voice of the narrator - you know that you’re going to enjoy listening to it.  I was also intrigued by the situation and full of sympathy for the feisty young protagonist, Jessie Thompson.  From the first page, I wanted to know what happened to her. But it wasn’t entirely to do with plot or character construction - it was language.  The prose is effortless and a pleasure to read. I realised I was in safe hands.

The first book in the trilogy is A Good Liar, which opens during the first world war.  Jessie is very much in love with Clive Whelan and they plan to marry as soon as the war is over and Jessie has finished her teacher training course.  But Clive is killed in an accident in the shipyard and Jessie finds herself in the same predicament as many young women in the first decades of the twentieth century. They say that you can’t go back three generations in any family without encountering illegitimacy.  Jessie’s harsh mother is unsympathetic and Jessie eventually gives birth in what were once euphemistically called ‘mother and baby’ homes.  Her child is adopted and Jessie is expected to go back into the world as if nothing has happened.  For the sake of respectability, no-one must ever know.  It’s the beginning of a lie that will have repercussions for the whole of her life.

Jessie works in a factory for the rest of the war and then applies to complete her teacher training course.  She changes her name and relies on records being lost in the chaos of war.  Her past is conveniently buried.  By 1937 Jessie Whelan is headmistress of Newton School and a pillar of the local community.  She is part of a generation of single, independent women who lost their partners in the first world war. But she longs for a close relationship.  She begins a secret affair with a much younger man, knowing that if it becomes public she will lose her job.  At the same time her illegitimate son begins to track her down after the death of his adoptive parents.  Andrew, Jessie’s lover, becomes his new boss.  When John reveals his identity to Jessie, she is panic-stricken because she has so much to lose.  John agrees to say that he is her nephew in order to preserve appearances.


The second novel in the trilogy - Forgiven - opens in 1946.  There are big social changes all over Britain.  Men are returning from the war expecting women to give up their jobs for them.  The new vicar at Newton and head of the education committee, is an ex serviceman and resents the fact that Jessie, as headmistress of the school, occupies a family house even though she is unmarried and has no children.  He puts pressure on her to give the school house up for one of her subordinates - another ex-serviceman.  The vicar begins to hint that perhaps it’s time she retired and made way for others.  Jessie loves her job and doesn’t want to think about giving it up.  But she has begun to make a tentative relationship with a widowed doctor and sees the possibility of an alternative future.

However, Jessie’s lies are beginning to find her out. The moral climate is still cold and the liberal sixties a long way away.  Andrew has emigrated to Canada and asks her to join him, and make their relationship public.   Her son John has fallen in love and is going to get married.  He tells his new wife the truth about Jessie.  His fiancĂ©e Maggie goes to confront her, accusing Jessie of abandoning her child and being a bad mother.  Jessie is forced to make a difficult decision and we are outraged on her behalf.


In Fallout, the third of the trilogy, time has moved on ten years.  Jessie, having retrained as a secretary, has a responsible job at Windscale, the nuclear plant on the Cumbrian coast.  She now has grandchildren and leads an independent life.  Her relationship with her outspoken daughter-in-law is still fiery.  Jessie, uneasy about some of the things she sees at Windscale, is beginning to become involved with the anti-nuclear movement.  This brings her into conflict with her employer and her son, who also works at the plant.   Jessie leaves to devote more time to activism and takes a lodger to earn money.  Laurence is a physicist seconded to Windscale - a married man unofficially separated from his wife - and, though at first he and Jessie keep their lives separate, eventually the barricades come down and a dangerous friendship begins to develop between them.

We, the readers, know that there is a nuclear accident on the horizon, but we don’t know how Jessie and the community are going to deal with it, or how it will affect her friends and family. Ruth Sutton writes very clearly about Britain’s only major nuclear event - a reactor fire that could have been as serious as Chernobyl, but for the courage of several individuals.  She is also very good on the tug of loyalties within a community that has always been forced to earn a living from dangerous industries and where people have learned to take risks many of us would consider unacceptable in order to feed their families.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this trilogy.  The industrial communities of the Lake District so often get overlooked by literature - the Cumbrian west coast is a fascinating landscape ‘between the mountains and the sea’.  Ruth comments that, “most people’s impression of the Lake District and Cumbria is green hills, sparkling lakes and Beatrix Potter. For those of us who love the wild west coast, that image needs a challenge, and I think – I hope – that my three novels portray real life here, not some romanticised idyll”.  They certainly do, and - with Windscale transformed into Sellafield - there were some local shops who wouldn’t carry Ruth’s third novel with its graphic cover image of the original disaster.

The three novels are packed with interesting characters and they cover a crucial period of social upheaval - the aftermath of the first world war, the depression and the subsequent de-industrialisation of northern Britain.  Having followed Ruth’s characters through the good and the bad times I was very glad that Jessie, after a lifetime of struggle and concealment, finally gets a happy ending.  

Ruth Sutton is leading a writers' workshop at the Borderlines book festival in Carlisle this weekend. 11am at Carlisle Library on Saturday Sept. 6th.  More details here.....

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