A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Reading a well-written novel is rather like embarking on a journey with strangers. At first everything and everyone is new and slightly unsettling, but as the journey proceeds, you gradually get to know your fellow travellers. Some you like immediately, some intrigue you, some irritate you and some you are destined to change your mind about.
Speaking personally, for me to enjoy that journey I need a strong narrative voice, and The Glass Painter’s Daughter – one of the shortlisted books for The Romantic Novel of the Year Award – has not one, but two.
Our lead narrator is Fran Morrison, an itinerant classical musician who has travelled the world trying to escape from her painful personal memories. When her widowed father falls seriously ill, Fran dutifully returns home to Minster Glass, the stained-glass shop he runs in an historic corner of Westminster.
As her father hovers between life and death, Laura picks up the reins of Minster Glass and she and the shop’s craftsman Zac take on the job of restoring a shattered stained-glass angel window in the local church – a window originally designed and installed by Minster Glass in the 19th Century. Researching the history of the window, Fran discovers a diary, written in the 1880s by our second narrative voice, Laura Brownlow.
Double narratives can be a tricky balancing act. Often you find one storyline more interesting than the other and rather resent the intrusion of the less-favoured thread, but here the two stories are so beautifully interwined – and so obviously destined to meet – as to be virtually seamless. The story moves smoothly between the centuries, linked as they are by the angel window and Minster Glass.
But The Glass Painter’s Daughter is not a novel with its heart buried in the past. The local community around the square is vibrantlybrought to life. There is, for instance, a wickedly knowing description of the local choral society Fran joins, with its charismatic conductor Ben and his front row groupies. Ben is a ruthlessly ambitious man, trying to galvanize his band of happy amateurs into tackling Elgar’s atmospheric but demanding “The Dream of Gerontius“.
As the conjoined stories of the window and Laura Brownlow unfurl in the diary, Fran’s own troubled past and fractured emotions start to come into focus leading eventually to a resolution that is not neat, but completely believable.
In places, it could have done with some tighter editing. The secondary storyline featuring Fran’s old friend Jo and her troubled love life was franky – for me – surplus to requirements and resolved a bit too patly. That, however, is a minor quibble.
The Glass Painter’s Daughter is a glorious book about love, loss, redemption and reconciliation. If that makes it sound dull and worthy, then the fault lies entirely with me. It’s romance for grown-ups, tinged with sadness and bathed in multi-coloured light, with Elgar as its soundtrack and angels presiding. What more could you ask?
Pocket Books. Simon and Schuster. 2009. ISBN: 978-1-84739-140-7. 450pp.
Last week, Moira reviewed the winning novel, Lucy Dillon’s Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts. Next week, she’ll be looking at Miranda Dickinson’s A Fairy Tale of New York.