A middle-aged woman runs from her past in Blackthorn Winter by Sarah Challis. The novel opens with a local villager, Star Bishop, discussing an accident that has just occurred, and that Greg Whittle was “Livid, he was. Bloody effing idiot, he called her,” referring to Claudia, who had apparently hit Greg’s tractor with her car. Star goes on to describe Claudia’s state of mind to her neighbor Monica, who listens appreciatively to this local gossip. Apparently, Claudia appeared to be a bit befuddled and confused at the accident.
The next scene moves on to Claudia, who is back at home reflecting on what had just happened and how her life has become one big mess. She feels that her life is falling apart. She has changed her last name from Barron back to her maiden name of Knight in the hopes that her new neighbors will not figure out who she is. She does not want them to know that her husband is THE Roger Barron, the one now spending his days and nights in jail. She tries to live a life of anonymity, while the neighbors are all talking about her and wondering why a woman such as she is living alone in a small village like theirs. Claudia, in the meantime, behaves as if she is divorced (which she is not) and is on her own.
In the meantime, life goes on. Claudia slowly adjusts to living below the standard of living that she had been accustomed to. She has sold a lot of her fine china and furniture, keeping only what she needs, the bare necessities. Her two adult children are on their own, and so Claudia has to fend for herself, living in this awful bungalow in the village known as Court Barron. It’s a far cry from her life in London, where her husband was quite successful and they had a lot of money. She lived a life of ease and luxury; now, she must resort to working for a living, and with lack of any recent job experience, she’s having a hard time finding someone who will hire her. When she does find a job, it is so menial that she can’t believe she has accepted the position, but she knows that pride will get her nowhere, and does what she can to earn some extra cash.
Claudia is not the only one having to deal with her husband’s jail sentence. Her daughter, Lila, who lives on her own in the city, is taking it exceptionally hard and blaming her mother for the affair that her father had, feeling that Roger Barron deserved to be happy and that Claudia obviously was not there for him. Claudia’s frustration with her daughter just adds to her stress, and she wants desperately to explain to Lila that she is not the bad guy. At the same time, Roger is Lila’s father, and she doesn’t want to come between father and daughter. It is a very difficult time for her, and Claudia feels she has no support from her family, except from her sister-in-law, Minna, whom she contacts often for advice and support.
While the center of the novel is focused on Claudia and her husband’s notoriety that she cannot completely escape, what makes this book so special are the characters introduced because of their contact with Claudia. Each person has his or her own story, and the reader gets to know each one intimately. There’s the neighbor, Peter Durnford, who falls in love with Claudia. And yes, Peter is married, to a very aggressive and domineering woman named Julia. There is also the elderly neighbor, Valerie Pomeroy, who appears to be drunk quite often, but upon closer inspection, has a lot to offer in terms of friendship and loyalty. Valerie’s relationship with Claudia’s son is, for this reviewer, one of the highlights of this story. Claudia’s two children each have their own interesting stories, as well as their differing relationships with each of their two parents. And then there is Anthony Brewer, Greg’s father, who offers friendship to Claudia, and possibly more than just that. One can go on and on, as Challis fills the novel with a number of engaging and fascinating characters that help make this book a very rich reading experience.
The feel of this book is all about family and friends, and the spirit of the village is brought to life as Challis does a wonderful job creating characters that are unique and quirky yet real and three-dimensional. One will get to know them fully through the pages, and the way Challis develops the story is done brilliantly, in a way that feels as if one were living in that village and hearing the residents gossiping to one another. This is a truly wonderful read and is highly recommended. One cannot go wrong with Blackthorn Winter.