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I used to sneer at the shelves of Catherine Cookson novels in the library. There were always so many – how could an author who churned out all those novels expect them to be of any decent quality? An aspiring author myself, I was cynical about these books and saw no attraction in them. As far as I was concerned, they were devoured solely by the blue rinse brigade and held absolutely no interest to me, a woman in her thirties who loved a wide range of books – from Terry Pratchett to Jane Austen with a generous helping of chick lit in the middle.
My mother-in-law works in the local library and often passes on the latest releases for me to read, before they go on the shelves for the unwashed masses to fight over. So it was that I came to have a Catherine Cookson novel in my possession, a weighty hardback entitled The Thursday Friend.
Smirking, I knew exactly what to expect – a slushy historical romance, where some poor urchin overcomes the class divide to marry a wealthy bloke with a big posh house in the country. The standard of writing would be low, it would be dull and laughable – but I’d give it a try.
I was to be proved wrong. The Thursday Friend is set in modern times, it is vibrant, intriguing, with engaging and realistic characters. It is not a slushy romance.
I suddenly realised the attraction of the author and since then, have read many of her novels. Some – such as The Tinker’s Girl and The Rag Nymph – are brilliant, novels which grab you right away and you close the last page with an element of grieving. I must have read 10-15 of her novels by now and the only two I disliked were Rosie of the River and Hamilton.
THE SOLACE OF SIN
I have recently had a few weeks of not being able to read. You know, you pick up a book and just can’t get into it. You can’t concentrate; you give it up as a bad loss after a couple of pages. It’s very frustrating, I have hundreds of books in my bedroom waiting to be read.
Well, I decided to try a Catherine Cookson again and the fact I finished a 415-page book in a few days proves how good this one was. Although the first few pages still proved a bit of a challenge - with my temporary non-reading status offering a stubborn stance, it didn’t take too long before I was lost in that other world, the land of the written word which transports you to other places, other times and plants you as a fly on the wall spying on a myriad of unknown lives.
The basic story of this novel is centred on a woman called Constance (Connie) Stapleton. She is reasonably wealthy and has been supporting her husband Jim, an on-off author, for many years. While she provides the roof over his head and the means to a comfortable lifestyle, he fits in the odd bit of writing around his obsession for teenage girls.
As their son Peter turns eighteen, it seems an ideal opportunity for Connie to escape this loveless marriage and the selfish man she has wed. But she seems reticent to go. Is it from a wish to stay with Jim or a fear of what may happen if she leaves?
When the family are visited by Harry (Jim’s brother) and Millie (his wife), they tell Constance about a journey they recently made. They discovered a beautiful house in a remote but scenic area of Northumberland. Captivated by its location, they have a look round and discover it is for sale.
Somehow they feel it would be ideal for Connie. Deciding to see it for herself, she is indeed bewitched by its beauty. But so many things seem to be against her purchasing it. Jim is against the idea and is adamant he would not live there, yet Connie is terrified of living alone.
The house is owned by the O’Connor family and Vincent – who shows them round – seems rather strange. Could he somehow be a threat to her safety? His family is a complete contrast – three adults, who are kind, generous and warm-hearted and a brood of children of varying ages, who are full of energy, fun and excitement. With such a family near her, would she really be so alone after all?
The family harbours a few skeletons of its own though. What relationship does Hannah have to Mr. and Mrs. O’Connor? Something is amiss – but what is it?
The first page of the book was rather a shock. I think this is the only book I have ever read where the first scene is about a mother finding her son masturbating over porn mags! As his father’s penchant for young girls rears its ugly head later on, I kept checking the front cover to make sure I had picked up the right book after all.
This is certainly not a stereotypical Catherine Cookson novel in that way. Of course, the book’s title has an important role to play here. We learn throughout that a ‘sin’ can be interpreted as many things and not all sins are bad. Each sin involves an amount of individual interpretation and judgement, to which we are guided to our own opinion by the words of the author and the actions of the characters. So we come to love Hannah and hate Jim, both of whom can be described as sinners.
We also examine families here. The two ‘conventional’ families – Constance and Jim with their son Peter and Harry, Millie with their daughter Ada – are flawed and unhappy. In complete contrast, we have the strange set-up at the O’Connor house where there seems to be an endless stream of children and an intriguing relationship between the adults. But ultimately, this is the family that works, the only family that seems happy and full of love.
I found the novel was easy to read and it only took a chapter before I was immersed in the story and wanted to know what happened. I felt such strong emotions – pity for Connie and willing her to be strong and get out, hatred for Jim and his evil ways. It is hard to put the book down; you want to know how everything develops.
The story wasn’t as predictable as I feared it might be and there are plenty of twists and surprises throughout (none of which I think I guessed right!). It does have the ending you hope for, but there is a difficult path to tread on the way to that rainbow filled sunset.
The characters are interesting, engaging and realistic. The setting contrasts between the crowded city and the huge expanse of the countryside. The story keeps up a steady pace with enough time devoted to scene setting, but plenty of excitement and action throughout.
I recommend this book to everyone, it’s not a particularly ‘girlie’ read and it could appeal to a wide range of ages too. Forget your misconceptions, your prejudiced views and your fixed ideas on what a Catherine Cookson novel is. Sneak past those blue-rinsed women at your local library, borrow a Catherine Cookson and give it a go. You can always say you’re getting it for your Gran, if you get any strange looks!
I, for one, am proud to stand up in public and say “I am a Catherine Cookson fan”. Damn. There goes my street cred.
The Solace of Sin is available for £5.99 in the paperback edition.