Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: A Memory of Violets

A Memory of Violets. Hazel Gaynor. Historical fiction romance.

This is a woman's book, writes Brian Byrne. A mother's book. A daughter's book. A sister's book. Obviously I'm none of those, which may explain why it took me so long between beginning to read it and finishing it. I bought 'Violets' at Hazel's local launch in Naas, and I've just closed the last page in the sunlight of one of our good summer days. Don't in any way hold that long time against it.

There's very little sunlight in the beginning of this one. The place and the period are the cold, dirty, smokey and dangerous streets of 19th century London. The main characters then are the poverty Irish, in particular two little sisters who spend their days selling flowers, for pittances they hope will be enough to ward off a beating from their father at home in the slums.

It's a story of the elder looking out for the younger who is blind. Florrie and Rosie, Rosie suddenly gets lost and Florrie spends many years afterwards searching for the little one.

Almost four decades later there are two other sisters, living up north in the country, with their own troubles and tragedies. When one, Tilly, comes to the city to work with a charity that was set up for the flower girls, some strange linkages begin to happen. For the rest, well, you'll just have to read the book.

'A Memory of Violets' is quite different to Hazel Gaynor's first and best-seller 'The Girl Who Came Home'. The scope then was larger, the tragedy greater. But there are similarities in the author's love of the early 1900s as a place to write in. And in the way she can virtually live in that period with her characters as they grow.

Every era has its own language, and while it can be relatively easy to fill in descriptions and mores of a time, getting the words and idioms and accents, the voices of people living there, is a much more difficult exercise. It seems to me that Hazel Gaynor has this ability, though I suspect she spends many long hours honing her dialogue to be correct in its time and place.

'A Memory of Violets' and its characters are fiction, but based on real people, events and achievements. The fiction is the skillful weaving of characterisation and happening so that we have a story to maintain interest. And, notwithstanding the long time it took me to finish it, the story did hold my attention. To the point that each of the many times I went back to it, the book immediately re-enfolded me into its story-telling without my having in any way to reread parts or renew acquaintance with its people.

Hazel was always going to write this story. She acknowledges a former teacher in Driffeld School who had once cast the younger her as Eliza Doolittle in 'My Fair Lady'. In an interview last year, she told me that the story of the flower sellers had always fascinated her. But it wasn't until she began to looker closer at their lives that she found the much more fascinating element which is the foundation of this novel.

My finishing it in the sunshine was apt, as, like in all best romances, the story in 'Violets' ends well. There are happily ever afters to counter the toils and tribulations. Though not without some unexpected twists, and an element of other-world that I particularly liked.

It's also apt that I finally got to finish it as the book is currently top of the historical fiction sales on Amazon. And at a time when Hazel herself has been buried in the personal turbulence of finishing her latest book. With, I suspect, the same meticulousness, passion, and professionalism that characterises all her work. As is typified by 'A Memory of Violets'.