Monday, 10 October 2016

Seldom Seen by Sarah Ridgard

Book Review

Book review of Seldom Seen by Sarah Ridgard

I mentioned Seldom Seen (Windmill Books) by Sarah Ridgard in my September Favourites and promised I'd do a proper review.

I didn't know anything about the book before I read it, except that the author is from Suffolk like myself and the book is also set in the county.

It is set near to the little town of Framlingham, famous for its 12th century castle. I was actually in Framlingham this weekend for their annual Sausage Festival (yes, I snigger every time I say that too) and I had big plans to photograph the book with Framlingham Castle in the background. But, in typical British way, it hammered down and the photo session didn't happen. We also spent most of the time in the pub instead of sampling sausages (can't think of a decent wet sausage joke, someone else make one up).

Anyway, the book has a lovely cover by illustrator Tom Duxbury, so looks pretty good with or without a castle in the background. I have this edition but the first editions are in yellow.

Book review of Seldom Seen by Sarah Ridgard

I also discovered that Seldom Seen was long-listed for the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2013.

And then I read the blurb, and it was swiftly put to the top of my tbr list.

Read it for yourself.

Desiree White was walking through the fields of winter wheat and oilseed rape when she saw it.

She picked the newspaper bundle out of the ditch and took it to the phone box.

Across the baby's tiny body she could see a faint tattoo of Lady Di's face where some of the newsprint had rubbed off. It was like finding a featherless bird fallen out of its nest.

No one has ever bothered much about Desiree but now everyone is interested in her, in what she saw, in who the parents might be and why they'd dump a baby.
As years go by and everyone else moves on with their lives, Desiree feels stuck, unable to forget what she saw that day. But when she starts to make connections which bring the truth dangerously close to home, it seems that some secrets are best left alone.

Seldom Seen is a mix if genres; part crime fiction, part coming of age story, part magical realism and also a glimpse into the realities of rural life.
For anyone wanting a fast paced, edge of your seat thriller Seldom Seen is not for you; the story develops slowly and in small bits that seem disconnected and more to do with the inhabitants of Desiree's rural community than the death of a baby. Yet persevere, as these separate stories all become linked later on.
It is a slow but engaging mystery, but it's the characters that are the winning aspect of the book, especially Desiree. Only 14 when she discovers the baby, Desiree is suspended between childhood and adulthood, yet is different to the 'average teenager' portrayed in books. Her telling of the story switches from matter of fact bluntness, especially when describing the more horrifying aspects of the story, to her endless imagination, such as visualising her hopes for a relationship as a shadowed house that is dragged behind the car.
All the characters are well drawn and fascinating in that they are seemingly average, everyday people in a small village, yet Ridgard draws out the hidden layers, both sweet and sour.
This is especially apparent in Desiree's family and her somewhat fraught relationship with her mother, who is desperate for new adventures but terrified to leave the house. In fact, the secondary mystery in the novel is that of what happened between Desiree and her mother, and often one I was more interested in than the one of Peewit. This is the name that Desiree gives the baby, which haunts her and causes her to look into the mystery further.

"She came over and lay next to me in the church today. I stopped off on the way home from work, and as soon as I sat beneath the picture window, I felt her come over to me. She's like a lone peewit, always landing close by when there's bad weather on the way - yet more of it heading in my direction."

This slightly mystical feel contrasts with the bleak reality, which is characterised in the countryside surrounding Desiree. This book peels back the layer of chocolate box houses and fields full of fluffy sheep that most people associated with the countryside, and instead is full of mud stretching on forever, mixi rabbits round every corner and the claustrophobia of living in a village where everyone knows everyone else's business.
I live in a small village myself so this is something I can identify with, and its refreshing that a writer portrays a more realistic view of countryside living.

One of the few gripes I had with this book, wasn't so much a problem to me, but might be to others who don't know the area. Ridgard references a lot of places in the Framlingham area, without giving much of a description of what they are. Such as calling Framlingham Fram and not describing what it is, similarly, she mentions discusses Dunwich, which is well-known throughout Suffolk as the village that eroded into the sea, but this wouldn't be widely known elsewhere. All she needed was a line of explanation in some places.

That was really my only issue with Seldom Seen, and that it could have progressed a little faster. But I also think that, in a way, these things almost work for the story; the pace reflects its setting, slow country life, full of community knowledge that seems vital to those who live there but has little meaning to anyone else. Desiree's world is very small and so is the story, yet it is also understandable to readers, wherever they're from.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Book review of Seldom Seen by Sarah Ridgard

Has any one else read Seldom Seen? What did you think?

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