Thursday 15 February 2024

Blog Tour: The Sleeping Beauties, Lucy Ashe

This review is part of the blog tour for the novel. Thank you to Random Things Tours and Magpie Books for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

It’s 1945 and Rosamund Caradon is escorting the last of the evacuees that she has cared for during the war back to London, her daughter Jasmine enjoying her last chance to boss them around. Their journey back to London is disrupted when Briar Woods, a young ballet dancer, chooses their carriage to travel in. The children are delighted, having taken some basic ballet classes during their stay at Gittisham Manor, but Rosamund is suspicious. Why choose their carriage, noisy with excited children, when there are plenty of empty spaces? Her discomfort around Briar only grows as she encourages Jasmine to increasingly enter her world. Why is Briar so insistent that they become close, and why does she seem hostile to Rosamund?

The early chapters set up the scenario in a way that the reader is unsettled by Briar, seeing her through Rosamund’s eyes, but also have reason to suspect Rosamund may be being overly cautious. She repeatedly mentions how she’d like to be able to stay in the safety of the grounds of Gittisham Manor with Jasmine, away from the world. Could it be that the bustle of London and the sad memories it holds for her are influencing her response to this young woman who is being nothing but accommodating? The focus then shifts to Briar and her history and we follow her for the majority of the book with a few different time jumps to drip feed her story. 

Alongside her friends Martha and Vivian, Briar is a dancer with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. We get a sense of the wonderful camaraderie between them, an intimacy from living and dancing together. You feel the excitement and promise of young lives, living on their own for the first time, travelling the country and meeting exciting new people. Unfortunately, this comes with a dose of heartache for some, and difficult situations that will have far-reaching consequences. We are reminded that although these young women seem to have freedom and independence, the age they’re living in is still very much stacked against them, and they are held to a very different standard than the men they encounter.

The fictional lives of Briar and her friends are intermingled with famous names from the ballet world (Margot Fonteyn, Ninette de Valois, and Robert Helpmann to name but a few) and events from the company’s history. They travel to the Hague as it’s on the brink of invasion from Germany, a difficult chapter from the past where fictional tragedy is inserted. Ashe seamlessly blends fact and fiction, and ballet fans will enjoy the references to well known figures and productions. There is no shying away from the challenges of being a professional dancer, especially during a time of war and rationing, but the splendour of their production of The Sleeping Beauty as they return to the Royal Opera House stands in stark contrast to the heartbreak of the characters.

This is a story of secrets and an examination of what it means to be a mother. It considers how the choices you make when young can have impacts far beyond what you can envisage at the time. It is a heartfelt, well researched novel. The ballet environment that forms the setting is enjoyable but the heart of the story could happen with any backdrop. The characters are well drawn and believable, and you’re left wishing you could see more of how the revelations play out. A great read, I’ll be going back and reading Ashe’s debut.

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Friday 2 February 2024

Blog Tour: A Sign of Her Own, Sarah Marsh

This review is part of the blog tour for the novel. Thank you to Random Things Tours and Tinder Press for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

Ellen Lark was born hearing but an illness in childhood results in complete hearing loss. Her family develop their own sign language and communicate smoothly, but as she grows older and she must find a way in the world her mother considers her options. Originally she is intended to study at a deaf school where communication will be in sign language, but her grandmother has other ideas and she is forced to an oral school where the aim is to develop the student’s speech to the point where their deafness is unnoticeable. This is as a concession to hearing people rather than as a benefit to the students who find it much easier to communicate in sign. A repeated theme throughout is how difficult relying on lip-reading is and how much is missed. Eventually Ellen comes into contact with Alexander Graham Bell and his Visible Speech, a system where the movement of the mouth and tongue are symbolised so words can be formed without knowing what’s being said. The glaringly obvious problem with this is that it does not aid the person speaking it but merely creates a type of party trick, a way to make hearing people more comfortable. 

This dive into deaf history and the discrimination faced by those who wish to use sign language is the most interesting aspect of the novel, but the plot also focuses on Bell’s attempts to progress his inventions. There is some intrigue with a rival and the suspicion of spying that led to two patents being submitted on the same day. The narrative jumps between Ellen’s youth and several years later when Bell is leading up to demonstrating his new invention - the telephone. The period between the two timelines closes as the story progresses and the technique is not entirely successful. The switch in time is only denoted by the heading of a different city and it can be a little disorienting. I didn’t personally find it added anything to the story to know that things had become fraught later on before we reached it in the earlier narrative, and the closening in time made the jumps even less relevant. A straightforward narrative may have helped build connection to some of the characters, and given them more of an introduction than the slightly confusing structure allows.

Ellen becomes quite taken with Bell when he is teaching her, her youth showing through as she hopes to impress him and hold on to the belief that he shares things with her he doesn’t with his other pupils. He is impressed with her lip-reading abilities and so she is reluctant to admit how ineffective it is. She hates to think that he speaks to her more slowly than he does with hearing people, that he sees her only as a student. In time, she has to accept that his affections lie elsewhere, and ultimately, that he is not a true ally of the deaf community. When she meets Frank, a deaf printmaker who is steadfastly against Visible Speech she sees what life can be surrounded by people who sign. He also confronts her with some difficult truths about Bell who in turn reveals some unfortunate events from Frank’s past. Their relationship is difficult but it’s clear there is genuine affection between them, and it is a stark contrast to her relationship with her fiancĂ©, with whom we see very little desire.

She often feels out of place in both hearing and deaf circles as her signing is not strong due to her oral education, and she comments on how unnatural communication is with hearing people. She misses out on side jokes and chit-chat. It is exhausting constantly trying to understand what is being said around her, and she even writes an essay on homophenes - words where the lip shape matches that of a different word. It really drives home the fact that lip reading can be useful to aid comprehension but is incredibly difficult to rely on entirely. Throughout we see people look on sign language as animalistic, unintelligent and uncouth. It is sad to witness this discrimination and refusal to allow people the ability to communicate in their own language. This is a very real part of deaf history, and one that is only recently being turned around.

This is a beautifully written novel which allows us to see the world through Ellen’s eyes. The descriptions of signs are written in such a way that those who know BSL will recognise them, and those who don’t will easily be able to picture the movements. This is a coming of age novel with Ellen trying to find her voice in a world which tries to silence it. A promising debut.