The Hiding Places by Catherine Robertson – 2015

Hiding PlacesThe Hiding Places is a study in grief and penance – for losses and crimes both real and imagined.  I loved Robertson’s romantic trilogy starting with The Sweet Second Life of Darrell Kincaid – a series of elevated genre-referential funny romance novels. The Hiding Places is a romance novel as well, but it is also so much more.  April Turner is living a life of self-imposed bleakness in New Zealand – living in penance for her imagined part in the death of her son, Ben.  She teaches part time at a community education centre, where the students are transitory, and has only a nodding acquaintance with neighbours.  Then a ‘private individual’ knocks on her door to announce that April has inherited a country estate in Buckinghamshire, complete with a long-abandoned mansion – Empyrean. April travels to the UK with a return ticket firmly in her hand, to finish the necessary paperwork as quickly as possible and return to her two-dimensional existence.  She doesn’t want to do the organising ‘remotely’ as she doesn’t want the possibility of imagination entering her life – she wants to see the reality and be done with it.  As to be expected of Roberston’s novels, April ends up amidst a gaggle of interesting characters and events.  She is forced to prolong her stay – and the English seasons, history and folklore take over the structure of the novel.  April’s experiences are evoked through the passing of the seasons, helped along by passages from The Popular Encyclopaedia of Gardening.  As she works on getting Empyrean in order for sale, helping the mischievous but ‘man with secrets’ Oran; spends time with the irascible octogenarian Sunny and the dapper lawyer Edward Gill; and with the mysterious ‘man of the woods’ Jack, she continues to battle the surges of life and colour that threaten to break through her penitential façade.  Her story is interwoven with events from Sunny’s past – the story of Sunny’s childhood friends Lily and Rowan – and James, the son of the tycoon who built Empyrean.  It is a mystery story of sorts – April even has a map to help her unravel it.  And it is about the mystery that April is to herself – as she ponders her faithfulness to her vow of penitence she – and we – realise that even at her bleakest times in New Zealand her vitality and warmth were not completely lost – her students at the community education centre complain when told she might not return, and she continues to support an ailing neighbour throughout the novel despite being at the other end of the world.  Amidst all the high drama and emotions Robertson’s touch can be light – such as the lovely way she allows April to finally be able to talk about Ben’s father.  Yes The Hiding Places is a study in grief and penance but it is also an affirmation of the insistence of life, the power of new growth – the continually waxing and waning of the power within nature, and within us all.

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