I do like Mary Stewart's books, the storylines are very good and there is a great element of suspense or mystery in them. This book reminds me a little of Ann Radcliffe's 'The Mysteries of Udolpho', and the character, Jennifer, does acknowledge this too, which made me smile.
I do like Mary Stewart’s books, the storylines are very good and there is a great element of suspense or mystery in them. This book reminds me a little of Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’, and the character, Jennifer, does acknowledge this too, which made me smile. The setting of a lonely building in dramatic and inhospitable scenery, the slow building of tension, lots of dark corridors and shadows, lonely hillsides and impenetrable woods, threatening weather and thunderstorms, secrets and concealments, and trusted people actually being not as trustworthy as first thought, all make it a deliciously good read!
She phrases things beautifully, particularly her descriptions of nature and the stormy weather, the stunning French scenery and the wonderful sounding food, as well as the dramatic way she builds suspense. I ended up jotting down so many wonderful examples:
‘The hills waited. The sun beat down steadily on the empty valley. There was no movement but the rush of the white water, no sound but the distant chiming of the bell and the thud of her own heart…’
‘And here, like the hair-prickling draught on the back of the neck, came the feeling that she was being silently watched. From behind’.
“She is here. She died two weeks ago, senorita, and was buried in our churchyard. Shall I take you to her now?”.
‘She woke to thick darkness…wondering…what it was that had woken her. The wind? But it was some slighter sound than this, she knew, that had awakened her, some telling little sound that should not have been…the door. It had been the quiet closing of the door.’
‘As she reached for the candlestick the second match died, and she stood there in the quiet darkness, her mind racing’.
‘In the windy moonlight the dim outline of mountain and forest bulked huge and uncertain, rain was spattering the panes, and low clouds flung their moving and fitful shadows. And then all at once she saw another shadow, a slight black shadow, moving more purposefully across the garden below than the ghost of any cloud’.
‘As she glanced back it touched her again, that feather-light finger of fear, the same shadow-tip of panic’s wing that had chilled her yesterday’.
‘Away to the north the great storm-cloud mounted and darkened, and its indigo rim reached out to suck down the sun’.
””Dona Francisca?” It was as if the name were a hawk, a storm-hanging vulture…the edge of whose shadow could strike the creatures below it into just this immobility’.
‘In the far distance, behind the towering immensities of cloud, came the sword-gleam of the first lightning’.
‘The pine-woods reached out to engulf them. The trees parted, accepted them into a sheltering darkness…the carpet of pine-needles sucked at the feet…drowning the footsteps, the progress of an army along this track…would make no more disturbance than a troop of ghosts, a current of air, a sigh’.
‘The convent crouched under the dark sky, its white-washed walls purple in the lurid storm-light’.
‘A shower of hail raced up the slope and over the crested woods, its million tiny ghost feet pattering and galloping overhead like a wave sweeping the shingle’.
‘Beyond the (window) pane the valley swam in green liquid light, eerie under a slate-blue sky now scored across by the pale diagonals of the rain’.
‘The windows were nothing but blind oblongs of roaring blackness against which the lamplight blandly purred’.
‘The blackness was intense, so that to move at all was to thrust one’s body, wincing, against palpable darkness’.
‘Her face, lit from below by the lamp, was like a mask thrown dramatically on a screen, a thing of sharp shadows and hard highlights, with great pits of darkness for eyes’.
‘The darkness was alive and vibrant with her terror, it seemed as if they could not fail to feel it’.
‘The mountains were about them, black buttresses blocking out the stars and breaking the force of the wind, devil’s gullies that whistled with their own demoniac storms, great walls of cruel rock that echoed to the slam of the gale and the crackle of the big rain’.
‘With that same empty creaking, like the scream of a mouse in a deserted wainscot, the door inched wider’.
There is also humour in the book too, as just in the first few chapters I was smiling at some of the lines:
‘Mother and daughter got on very well indeed, with a deep affection founded on almost complete misunderstanding’.
‘Miss Moon dug into her trout with the dogged efficiency and artistic appreciation of a bulldozer’.
‘(Jennifer) was making again the wonderful discovery that simple greed is one of the purest of human pleasures’.
This story begins with Jennifer travelling across the Pyrenees to meet her cousin, Gillian, due to concerns she has about Gillian’s wish to join a convent there. However when Jennifer arrives at the lonely convent in the mountains, she is informed that Gillian is dead and the details given about her death don’t seem to add up! She is told Gillian was too ill and delirious to speak or to mention relatives to contact, however she is then told that apparently Gillian had enough moments of lucidity to admire the blue flowers that were put in her room but Jennifer knows Gillian was colour-blind so can’t have seen these flowers as blue. Jennifer also wonders why Gillian didn’t mention family to contact if she was lucid enough to talk about flowers, and also why she never spoke in her native language of English, particularly in her non-lucid moments. Jennifer begins to suspect the dead woman wasn’t Gillian, and suspects the bursar at the convent, Dona Francisca, of knowing more than she is admitting. Jennifer gets permission to stay at the convent for a few days to investigate further, she sees someone leaving the grounds at dead of night and follows them, it is Dona Francisca going to the house of a local man, Pierre Bussac, and she overhears their conversation in which they reveal Gillian is there at the house with the man, and Dona Francisca tells Bussac he must kill Gillian by the end of the next day as the risk has become too great with Jennifer asking questions. Jennifer and Stephen (her cousin) suspect Bussac and Dona Francisca are involved in smuggling criminals out of France into Spain, and that they recently tried to smuggle out a bank robber, Lally Dupre, after the gang were caught, and that Lally asked for a lift into the mountains from Gillian and when their car crashed, Lally assumed Gillian’s identity hoping to elude the authorities, and so it was this woman, Lally, who died, and Gillian is now being kept a prisoner to prevent her talking. There are also valuable rare pictures and statues being housed secretly at the convent unknown to the blind Mother Superior and Dona Francisca wears grand jewels over her nun’s habit, and Jennifer suspects these are Dona Francisca’s proceeds from people smuggling. Jennifer and Stephen determine to rescue Gillian that day before she is killed, Gillian comes to the cottage door while they are talking to Bussac but she doesn’t seem to recognise Jennifer even when she calls her name, they presume she lost her memory in the car accident and Bussac has made her believe she is his wife. Bussac and Stephen fight, and Stephen is defeated and they have to retreat. Stephen then goes to the police, but he and Jennifer are now convinced that Bussac does care for Gillian as his wife but suspect he may cross into Spain with her that night to keep her safe from Dona Francisca. The police don’t come in time so Jennifer goes back to Bussac’s cottage, she witnesses Dona Francisca attempt to murder Bussac, and then he, badly injured, and Jennifer make their way along the dangerous path to Spain in the storm, to catch up with Gillian and protect her from Dona Francisca. The drama ends with Dona Francisca falling from a fragile bridge in the terrible stormy weather, never to be seen again, and Bussac also dying. Gillian is saved, and gradually retrieves her memory she lost in the accident. Phew, it’s all very dramatic and exciting, a very good read!