The Shape of Sand
Marjorie Eccles
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Buy *The Shape of Sand* by Marjorie Eccles

The Shape of Sand
Marjorie Eccles
St. Martin's Minotaur
288 pages
December 2005
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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It is 1910 and Beatrice Jardine, the exquisitely beautiful mistress of stately Charnley Manor is about to celebrate her forty-fourth birthday. The guest list for the party, hosted by Amory, her wealthy, loyal, and conspicuously devoted husband, is a smorgasbord of the rich aristocracy; no expense is to be spared for a celebration his beloved wife will always remember.

Unfortunately, the party will have disastrous consequences for all. The next morning it is discovered that Beatrice has mysteriously gone missing. Her four children - Marcus, Harriet, Vita, and Daisy - are fraught with worry, fearful for their darling mother's well-being. A search of the house and grounds ensues, as well as frantic calls to friends and relatives, but Beatrice remains undiscovered, her disappearance enigmatic and strangely disturbing.

A scandalous whiff of betrayal hovers over the Manor, the propensity for shame rocking the very foundations of the Jardine family. Beatrice was seen flirting with the simmering and impatient Kit, a much younger man who was obviously enamored of her, and the next morning, Valery Iskander, Beatrice's archaeologist friend from Egypt, hurriedly left the Estate, neglecting to give a formal goodbye.

Also missing is Beatrice's leather valise, a silver hairbrush, a walking costume, and some delicately embroidered silk underclothing. Was Beatrice having a surreptitious affair with Valery Iskander, and did they flee to Egypt together? Was she harboring some "very unladylike desires?" Were the long-held perceptions of an untroubled and happy life at Charnley totally wrong?

Forty-four years later, Harriet Jardine, Beatrice's eldest daughter, with the help of her younger sisters, is given the clues to complete the puzzle of her mother's disappearance. When a few old photos, some scraps of old paper, and Beatrice's diary recounting a summer trip to Egypt come into Harriet's possession, for the first time Harriet, Daisy, and Vita have a real hope of unearthing the truth of what happened in that summer of 1910.

An insurance firm has acquired Charnley as its head office, and the alterations and renovations have turned to house into a different place. The spirit of the old Charnley is gone forever, the memories pushed away over the years, though the shocking events that took place that summer long ago have always saddened and depressed Harriet.

Harriet has always maintained that her mother acted too precipitately in contravention of her normal rules. Beatrice would never have consciously flouted convention and willingly chose ostracism; she treasured propriety too much and always lived surrounded by people whose high opinion was paramount to her. However, her diary entries gradually divulge an inexplicable longing that seemed to assail her decorous life at Charnley - an urge to break free from the strictures of her world. Beneath her marble cool exterior, "there beat a longing for something wild and free, something dangerous trying to escape."

In this stylish and sophisticated novel containing elements of the whodunit, author Marjorie Eccles gives a distinctive voice to each character and plants many questions as to what may have become of Beatrice. The story covers two world wars and the rise of the suffragette movement, the author powerfully bringing to life two very different time periods.

The post-war austerity of run-down Britain, a country that is gradually picking itself up and whose life is still bound by restrictions and shortages of nearly everything, is juxtaposed with the golden era before the First World War. This is a world of rich elegance, where "willowy ladies wore long dresses with sweeping trains and enormous, elaborately-trimmed hats perched on their equally complicated coiffures," all set against a background of "smooth lawns and terraces and country houses" where well brought-up people are good humored and kind to each other, and where real anger rarely surfaces.

Eccles captures the opulence of the Edwardian era in all its self-congratulatory grandeur; people were always at their ease, simply talking, chatting, or passing time in a life devoted to the undiluted pursuit of pleasure. The diary entries of Beatrice grow more and more agitated as the plot thickens, her trip to Egypt the hot sand, burning skies, pyramids, temples and ruins almost overwhelming her, the weight and memory of old ghosts oppressing her.

Time has mostly stood still for Beatrice amid the grey stone walls of Charnley and the flawed splendor of its painted rooms. This spoilt, tragic, misunderstood woman has unfortunately spent most her life caught and trapped in an engulfing sense of despair not of her own making. It is only through the loyalty, love, and commitment of her three beautiful daughters a generation later that the mystery of this poor woman's disappearance can finally be put to rest.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2006

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