A sudden string of calamities prompts a righteous woman to question her faith in Hartley’s debut novel.
Jemimah Barraclough—named after the daughter of the biblically afflicted Job—leads a charmed life. Cozily married to railroad technician Bob with four lovable kids, Jemimah counts among her blessings a fine house in the glowing English village of Moorthwaite and a comfortable nest-egg from a lucky lottery ticket. She deserves it, too; she’s a leader in her church, generous to charities and always ready to console a troubled neighbor. But Sophie, a cynical town gossip with horn-shaped wisps of cigarette smoke crowning her head, thinks Jemimah’s holiness would crumble along with her happiness if she were to suffer misfortune. And Jemimah will suffer—but not for a good long while. The first half of Hartley’s sprawling novel is a slow-paced, naturalistic depiction of the Barracloughs’ bliss with hardly a cloud on the horizon. There are well-observed scenes of genial domestic chaos, comically bickering kids and family outings in the countryside, with the exasperated, slightly uptight Jemimah always striving to enforce rules of morality and deportment. A roomy subplot about one of Bob’s construction projects immerses readers in railroad office politics, endless jocular banter among electricians and the technicalities of rewiring signal stations. This is engaging enough material, especially if you like trains, and Harley stocks it with vivid, sympathetic characters but the reader sometimes wonders where the narrative is heading. Then, an avalanche of disasters sweeps down. Hartley explores Jemimah’s anguish with sensitivity as she struggles to keep a stiff upper lip, pull her family together amid shocking traumas and reach out to others as tragedy closes in. As in the Old Testament, God’s response to rattled prayers is not entirely satisfying and entails a string of contrivances that strain credulity. Still, as characters wrestle with trials great and small, Hartley’s delicate, perceptive rendering of their sorrow and confusion makes for an absorbing read.
A moving, if meandering, fable of good people who weather bad things.