Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Review: A Half Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb

Zach Gilchrist is an expert on the work of the late Charles Aubrey, a celebrated artist who may or may not once have had an affair with Zach's own grandmother. He owns a struggling art gallery in Bath and is facing the emotional devastation of his young daughter's move across the ocean to the US with her mother and stepfather. Crushed by the reality of his current life, Zach learns of a previously unknown Charles Aubrey piece up for auction and although he cannot afford to buy it himself (he already has two small Aubrey sketches, one of which absolutely captivates him), when he sees a photograph of it in the auction catalog, he just knows that something about it is off. Uncovering the truth about this new picture and finally finishing his long promised book on Aubrey sends Zach to the small village on the Dorset coast where Aubrey, his mistress, and their two daughters spent several summers before tragedy overtook them. What Zach finds about those pre-War summers consumes him, changes his direction, and deepens the mystery of the newly released sketch. Zach has uncovered the elderly Mitzy Hatcher, Aubrey's muse, whose memories of that time are more vivid to her than the present.

It is at this point that the narrative splits into several different strands. Zach, in the present, goes about his life in the village, determined to find the truth behind the sketches of "Dennis" even as he falls under the spell of the tale Mitzy is telling him and starts to find himself again, out from under the grief of his failed marriage, his daughter's relocation, and the weight of his failing gallery and his own stunted career as an artist. Mitzy, now called Dimity, is an elderly woman, a hedge witch whose memories of the past overwhelm her present. She's visited by the spirits of those long gone as she recounts her version of her relationship with Aubrey and his family. As a young girl on the verge of womanhood, she was an outcast in the village, the daughter of another hedge witch who spent most of Mitzy's childhood "entertaining" the local men. Her mother was hateful and she was desperately lonely until the Aubrey family arrived in the cottage closest to The Watch (the Hatcher's cottage). They didn't know who Mitzy was or how she was ostracized and they took her into their home and their hearts, first as a friend to oldest Aubrey daughter Delphine and eventually as a subject and inspiration for some of Charles Aubrey's most famous works. But Mitzy, who is quite beautiful and rustic looking, falls in love with Aubrey, mistaking his singular interest in her form and her beauty for his own unspoken love for her. Unused to attention and kindness or to the vagaries of artistic genius, she becomes obsessive and possessive in her love, warping the relationships she's built and desperately, calculatedly insinuating herself further into Aubrey's life until the shocking tragedy that changes everything.

But how reliable are Mitzy's memories? Is the story she's telling Zach true, is it entirely created out of her desire, or does it fall somewhere in the middle? Webb has created a gothic feeling, slightly sinister narrative that raises many questions in the reader. Poor Mitzy is a product of serious dysfunction that initially inspires pity and the reader understands why the small village closes ranks against Zach's questions but as the story progresses, Mitzy's reminiscences take on an obsessive and even slightly threatening feel. The tension in the novel increases almost imperceptibly as the tale progresses until it is clear that something startling has to happen to release the reader's pent up fears. This novel is very much about what is hidden, the secrets we carry, how we alter them, and the role of memory in our lives. The characters' lives showcase these themes very well but the characters themselves lack something that would make the reader want to stay with them. Mitzy is a bit too demented and creepy to be terribly sympathetic. Although Aubrey is supposed to be mesmerizingly charismatic, he remains a cypher, seen only through Mitzy's eyes. And his mistress and daughters are not particularly fleshed out because they are not the focus of Mitzy's obsession. Zach comes across as wishy-washy and weak while Hannah Brook is a cliché of stoic, farming stock. In the end, after the unraveling of the long held and jealously guarded secret, there is still no circling back to Zach's proposed biography, the very catalyst for his research trip and all the life changing revelations offered throughout the novel. Instead we end on a predictable note just a bit out of keeping with the overall tone of the novel up until that point.  It was a few things like this made the novel not quite as satisfying to me as I would have hoped.

For more information about Katherine Webb and the book check out her author page at her publisher, find her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book for the tour.


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