Suspense master Hill (Good Morning, Midnight, 2004, etc.) brings together a young Australian woman seeking her true parentage and a Spanish priest manqué in one creepy Cumbrian town.
Hailing from these strange Northern English parts, Hill knows the area well and hinges his story on several unpleasant bits of national history given imaginary local developments. The forced emigration of English orphans, for example: Samantha (Sam) Flood, a young Australian mathematics student at Cambridge, learns that her grandmother was probably pregnant at 12 years of age, in 1960, when she was shipped out from the town of Illthwaite (“an ill name for an ill place” says a disenchanted transplant). Brash, outspoken Sam appears in the village to check things out. No one in Illthwaite will talk to her at first, yet she gradually learns through reluctant confessions by descendants of the families concerned that her gran was raped by local boys, then hustled out of town. At the same time, seminarian Miguel (Mig) Madero, son of a Cádiz winegrower, arrives in town in search of material that he can incorporate into his doctoral dissertation. Mig has chosen the priesthood because of his spiritual visions, which involve stigmata and deep-seated memories. His visions are grounded in Illthwaite history. Mig unearths written testimonies about the horrible fate of a certain Spanish boy, his namesake, shipwrecked during the ill-fated Armada in 1588 and then enslaved by the nasty Gowder family. When discovered in flagrante with lonely wife Jenny Gowder, Miguel was crucified and left to die. (Jenny secretly cut him down.) There’s plenty of bad stuff still going on in this secretive village, but the dark climax is attractively mitigated by the growing warmth between recalcitrant Sam and sensitive virgin Mig, who recognizes that he’s not cut out for the priesthood after all.
Winning, spontaneous and blood-real characters triumph over a far-fetched plot.