By Jane Johnson
"One house, two women, a lifetime of secrets..."
THE SEA GATE is an immersive read which takes the reader on a surprising adventure to WWII and the Cornish Coast. It touches on smuggled contraband, small town prejudices, and the hidden artwork of a mysterious painter. But while it’s the stories of the two women, Rebecca (Becky) and Olivia, that keep the narrative flowing, the most interesting to me was the revealed story of the ‘dark man,’ and his carvings of protection. It’s the extension of his story as a prisoner of war from Morocco and Algeria, interned and working on a local farm during WWII that had me reaching for the tissues.
Written in dual narrative, this delightful story follows Becky, an artist and cancer sufferer, and her surprise decision to visit a feisty elderly relative of her recently buried mother. Olivia is in her nineties and lives in a house called Chynalls in the southernmost part of Cornwall. Her last letter to Becky’s mother was a heartfelt plea for help. With no other relatives, grief stricken Becky randomly decides to visit her. But when she arrives, Olivia is in hospital, and with no one to look after Olivia’s spirited parrot, Gabriel — a colourful character in his own right, Becky decides to stay.
“I need your help in getting Chynalls in order so that I can stay in my own home. Ridiculous RED TAPE! I’m perfectly fine with a lick and a spit. And they have the gall to complain about Gabriel, too! My only companion for all these years! Dirty and unhygienic, they called him. I lived through a war, I told them. We didn’t have hot baths and powershowers then. A fig for all their HEALTH & SAFETY!”
Olivia is a terrific character —clever, prickly and cantankerous, but Becky is urged to protect her. Barking orders from her hospital bed she provides Becky with the perfect excuse to hide away from a shallow life in London and avoid facing her own health concerns. Rosie, the housekeeper, and her sons put up a fight, but Becky becomes more confident and insistent on making decisions on Olivia’s behalf — she suspects Rosie’s family are trying to kill Olivia.
Curious to learn more about the woman she doesn’t know, Becky uncovers the letters her mother wrote to Olivia, along with photographs and more importantly, hidden paintings that immediately suggest Olivia is not all she seems. Becky soon recognises the focus of one of the paintings and discovers a point on the beach beyond the sea gate that leads back to Olivia’s cellar.
When Becky seeks the skills of local Moroccan man, Reda and his brother Mo, to prepare structural modifications to Chynalls for Olivia’s return from hospital, ghosts of the past come to the surface. The discovery of a human bone in the cellar that Olivia insists be ‘filled in,’ makes Becky suspicious of the activities that have taken place there. The tension builds beautifully at this point and I just could not put the book down! The 1940s part of Olivia’s story delves into lies, murder and secrets from the past that won’t go away.
THE SEA GATE is a terrific story, full of drama and subterfuge. It’s an exciting blend of a young woman’s experiences during wartime, woven with the exotic history of Algeria that is long forgotten. It’s the story of unrequited love and redemption— of hidden secrets and trust in the power of forgiveness.
Thanks to Net Galley for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.