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The Telling - review

The Telling by Jo Baker seemed to promise an interesting story: The modern day narrative of a bereaved daughter clearing away her dead mother's house, twinned with an early 19th century story of a basket-maker's daughter learning the world she read about in books wasn't always true, having been given a church education that had her believing all written word to be the "gospel truth".
These character journeys were set against themes of growing apart and the Chartist political movement respectively.

I do love a good bit of historical fiction, so I am sad to have been so disappointed by the book.

My greatest issue with it was the modern day narrative. I simply found no pace, intrigue or endearment in it. I hated Rachel, the contemporary narrator - hated her, and didn't warm to her a bit, despite being told of all her hardships. She was cold, unfairly mean to her supportive husband, detached, aloof, selfish and generally not a "nice" person, in my opinion. It mostly felt like she was dying to have a teenage strop the whole time, and to be honest, if she did it would have been welcome. This storyline needed some excitement.

I was frustrated to the point of skipping pages at the writing style of this narrative. It felt desperate on account of its boring-ness. Between dreary Rachel-monologues of woe and her weird trips to interrogate her poor neighbours/wonder aimlessly around church grounds, the reader is drip fed minute, mildly tantalising, morsels of intrigue - as if to say "hey guys, come on, stick with me because I have history - but err, you can't know it": allusions to mental illness, family breakdown and hallucinations - does this explain her behaviour? Is she still suffering postnatal depression? Is she imagining is there a presence in the house with her? Do I even care?... Ultimately, however, these pieces of information are left cold and unexplored. Very unsatisfying. And as such, I still hate Rachel.

Moving on....
The second narrative, by comparison, was far pacier and weightier, with fleshed out characters I felt I knew and felt "on-side" with. I loved Lizzie, the narrator for this part, and found her innocence believable and charming. I often wondered if it was even the same author, so different was the style! The narrative was full of great issues that were widely explored and evidently well researched: control of the church over a small village parish, women's rights, church education, revolution, class systems, betrothal, Chartists... I enjoyed it so much more. There was good mystery created with the introduction of a Mr Moore - a symbolic Satan in the garden of Eden - who lead astray our "Eve" with his books that were not the words of God, and which were not, she was surprised to learn, all truth.

Unfortunately another disappointment lay ahead in this book - although perhaps this time it was of my own making. The two stories did not come to a neat, or linked, conclusion. I had hoped my struggles with the Rachel storyline would be rewarded with a nice denouement that brought the two women together across time somehow, but alas, I was not. Although we knew the way the two women's lives would continue I did think the endings both felt a bit hollow, as if they had ended too soon.

It is hard for me to recommend this book - there are just too many frustrations with the modern narrative. However, I think you could skip Rachel's story line completely and have a lovely novella of chartists and English village life... Perhaps worth considering if you find the ebook cheap somewhere :)

5/10 for The Telling.

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