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.
I was recommended Ferney (1998) by James Long and awfully long time ago by my friend Carol, and was lucky enough to get a copy given to me by my friend Lucy last year. These things were not entirely coincidental: I’d put it on my Amazon wishlist, and was very pleased to get a copy – even though I couldn’t really remember anything about it, including… the content. It turned out to be that curious beast: a reincarnation romance. But don’t look away just yet. It’s not at all what you’d expect.
Gally is quite an anxious person – creative and loving, but ill at ease, despite her husband Mike’s attempts to make her feel secure. She doesn’t often feel at home or comfortable, so is rather surprised when she is drawn to a small Somerset village called Penselwood – and, more particularly, a ramshackle old cottage in that village – which they discover by accident.
To the north, beyond a sparse screen of trees, pasture stretched uphill. The ground to the south of the lane fell gradually away to the flat farmland stretching past Gillingham to Shaftesbury’s distant ridge. A trio of beeches on the edge of the road almost hid the house, the hint of a gable showing man’s intruding straight edges to those who looked hard enough. She was already at the gate, a rotten, slimy thing held by bent wire and baler twine. There was a small clearing beyond, perhaps a farmyard once, and he followed her through, feeling like a trespasser, envying her ease.
The source of this unexpected ease becomes revealed when we meet Ferney – or, rather, when Gally and Mike meet him, for he turns up unannounced at the house. And keeps turning up even after Gally and Mike have bought the cottage and started making it habitable. He has a sense of entitlement to the place… and, even more so, to Gally. She is young; he is old, yet she cannot deny the almost atavistic connection she feels to him.
I’ve already given away the spoilers in my introduction, really: Ferney tells Gally that they have been a couple in many previous lives. They continually reincarnate, and have to find the other. Usually both of them remember all the previous lives – this time around, for some reason, she cannot remember and he must explain. Since he is so old, she is not the first version of Gally that he has known in this lifetime. And this ramshackle house was once theirs.
If that synopsis sounds like something you wouldn’t like, then fear not. Far-fetched as the story sounds, not to mention a little creepy (for it could easily have been about an old man tricking a young woman into a relationship), it’s actually rather lovely. And what I found lovely about it wasn’t the relationship. I think Long was trying to write a romance for the ages – the otherwise beautiful cover has the rather ghastly tagline ‘a novel for anyone who believes in love’ – but I fell in love, instead, with his depiction of the Somerset countryside.
As somebody who doesn’t respond well to descriptions of place, I was rather surprised – but the excerpt I quoted above is an example of what I liked. Not so much explaining what the surroundings looked like, but somehow managing to convey the joy of being in a small village; the feelings that a true village-lover feels when walking through a wooded path or seeing a sweet old house in its own patch of ground. I didn’t realise that Penselwood was a real village until I was halfway through – it turns out to be about half an hour from where my parents live – but now I want to pay a visit and see if it inspires the same feelings in me.
In terms of character, Gally is so well-drawn that it is impossible not to feel empathetic with her anxiety, her confusion, her guilt about feeling a kinship with Ferney, and her happiness when she hears about their shared past. On the other hand, despite having the title to himself, I felt that Ferney was a less vivid character. I knew the effect he had on Gally, but I couldn’t quite grasp much else about what made him him.
As always when I read a book over 500 pages, I wonder whether it could have been shorter… and Ferney could certainly have lost a fair few pages without being any the worse for it. The flashbacks to past lives were, to me, rather dull. Although we are technically (within the schema of the novel) seeing Gally and Ferney, these figures felt like different people, and thus I didn’t feel at all invested in their lives. Similarly, I think the second half of the novel dragged a little. But I still really liked the novel. Long’s writing is quietly very good, and he was able to take a bizarre plot and make it both believable and not an obstacle to the narrative. I have a feeling that I’d prefer him writing about the real world (has he?) but he does a good job here.
There is a sequel of sorts, apparently – The Lives She Left Behind, I think it’s called – but I’ve heard fairly negative things about it, so might call it a day here. Ferney is undoubtedly an unusual book, but one that is definitely worth reading – not least because I can now lay claim to having read a reincarnation romance.