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The First Time I Saw Your Face is Hazel Osmond’s second novel; I reviewed her first novel Who’s Afraid of Mr Wolfe? here and I found the author went a long way towards breaking down my distaste for Heathcliffean heroes who are not Heathcliff with her style, energy and humour. So I was looking forward to reading her latest novel, and I enjoyed this one too, after wondering at first if I could get past my aversion to the theme of tabloid journalism and the deception and betrayal that went with it. Here we have another hero who like Mr Wolfe seemed to me to be bent upon making himself unforgivable, so the pivot for me was – would he be forgiven, and, more to the point, would I be able to forgive him? However, the set-up is quite clever, and the author might have read my mind in the way moral and ethical qualms were dealt with, giving reasons, if not excuses, for his extraordinarily dodgy actions and ensuring a measure of suitable expiation is made on the way to a happy ending. The protagonist is journalist Mack Stone, who is working undercover as nerdy writer Matt Harper to get a celebrity story and invade a family’s privacy, but falls for his mark in the process, as she also falls for him – whoever he is. The heroine is particularly vulnerable after a terrible accident, and the combination of her catastrophic loss of confidence and self-esteem with his egregious deception of her, her family and her loyal friends really does open an almost unbridgable gap between them. One of the things that kept me turning the pages was to see just what sort of a love story could mean that gap might be plausibly bridged. The novel also tackles an unusual and sensitive subject, facial disfigurement, directly and with insight.
The setting is rural and coastal Northumberland, beautifully described, and obviously deeply familiar to and loved by the author. There is a lot of local colour – the heroine, Jen, is hunted down to her home on a farm. She works in the library in the local town, and has an abiding talent and passion for acting, though she has lost the confidence even to go on stage with her local amateur dramatic society. Cue Mack/Matt infiltrating her work, her hobby and her home.
I enjoyed the set pieces in the library – as a librarian I found they felt pretty familiar to me, even if I found myself wincing at times at the behaviour of some of the staff (actually, that may only add to the authenticity …). Just one passage of personal discomfort, where ‘someone from the County Council’ arrived to talk to the staff about self-service and efficiency (but only because I have been that person). The production of Twelfth Night by the Amateur Dramatic Society was very engaging, and the choice of play with its secrets and disguises perfectly apposite, preparing us for a similarly miraculous denouement at the end of the novel.
All these themes are gathered together with huge verve and skill. There are two massive plot twists (at least), characters to believe in and root for or hate as required, and the resolution of all these knots in a satisfactory way. I raced through it, really needing to know what happened in the end, even grateful for the opportunity to carry on reading it on my iPhone on a London bus and in the coffee shop of the British Museum, so page-turning did I find it. Hazel Osmond’s second novel is in turns, and sometimes at once, funny, exuberant, sensitive and moving, this time with a hero who cannot rely on his overwhelming swoonworthy alpha-ness to carry all before him, but has to earn the right to be part of the happy ending.
Hazel Osmond: The First Time I Saw Your Face. London: Quercus, 2012. 400pp
ISBN 13: 9781849164191
Also available in Kindle and EPUB (DRM) editions.