in Her Wake | Amanda Jennings | 2016 | Orenda Books | 366p | Review copy | Buy the book
When Bella’s mother Elaine dies, Bella with her husband David makes the journey home, back to the Old Vicarage, for her funeral. It’s a particularly lonely event. Elaine had disconnected herself from her family and friends over the years, not liking people in her home, and so her husband Henry decided against holding a wake. Henry has something he needs to tell Bella but whenever he tries the words catch in his mouth. Finally, only a letter will do. A letter he leaves next to himself when, one night, a day or two after Elaine’s funeral, he slits his wrists, leaving Bella to find him. Faced with such tragedy, combined with the shock of the letter, Bella’s life disjoints, ripped apart at the seams. How to pull herself together, return to life, when she is in so many pieces?
And so begins In Her Wake, a novel of such beauty and elegance, I doubt I’ll read another this year that moves me quite as much. I don’t want to tell you what the mystery is. It’s not a great surprise but everything in this novel should be discovered for the first time by its fortunate reader. It takes us deep into Bella’s soul, removing her from the familiar, away from a controlling, bullish husband, and placing her in the most gorgeously painted Cornish seaside world, a place of myth and discovery. I’m a very regular visitor to this part of Cornwall and I loved its descriptions of familiar places around St Ives, especially the church at Zennor.
In Her Wake has big themes and Amanda Jennings explores them fully and with such insight. In particular, the themes of family, children, loyalty and trust. As Bella tries to find herself, great things are demanded of her and she has the choice of letting them defeat her or finding an inner strength that will shape her entire life. Bella’s character is drawn perfectly. She is so complex, her moods up and down and her thoughts in turmoil. But her interaction with others – with David and with other characters in the novel, especially Dawn – is fascinating to watch, engrossing to read.
In Her Wake isn’t just the story of Bella, it also gives us her father Henry’s tale, with extracts from his life mixed in with Bella’s. These sections are fascinating, so dramatic, and crucial for the rest of the novel. In Her Wake has an enormous emotional power but it is also a mystery and these sections add to the thrill and tension.
Amanda Jennings writes so beautifully, I can’t begin to give In Her Wake the praise it deserves. It kept me up until late into the night. I didn’t want it to end but I finished it far too quickly. I just didn’t want to put it down. For all of its heavy themes, In Her Wake is not a depressing novel – it’s one that is life-affirming and inspirational, full of hope. I did cry a fair bit but some of those tears were tears of happiness. I couldn’t have cared for Bella any more. I loved her so much, just as I did the other characters whose lives Bella alters with her stay in Cornwall.
In Her Wake is a wonderful, wonderful novel. My emotions were rung out of me. A novel of the year for me and one I will be sure to keep close.