Ember Island by Kimberley Freeman
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Kimberley Freeman is an author I discovered a year or so ago after reading her novel Wildflower Hill and I immediately fell in love with her mix of contemporary and historical fiction stories, often set in remote and picturesque Australian settings. Finding any new novel by this author is exciting and I have been looking forward to delving into Ember Island for some time now.
This book begins at the wedding of Tilly in 1890 where we find the bride very much in love with her husband and looking forward to her future with husband Jasper, but things take an alternative turn when Tilly's beloved grandfather collapses at the wedding and she finds herself remaining behind to care for him rather than joining her new husband at their home on Guernsey.
The story of Tilly is mixed with that of author Nina, who struggling to finish her latest novel seeks solace on Ember Island in the old family house that she purchased. There she finds letters and diaries of her great-great grandmother who has hidden the pages in the walls of the home Nina is now seeking to renovate, piece by piece she begins to pull together an understanding of life on Ember Island at the turn of the century.
What I loved about this book is that unlike similar historical/contemporary novels, who follow a dual storyline format, we don't find ourselves jumping endlessly backward and forward in time. Instead, much of the book is told from the perspective of Tilly. We follow her journey as a newlywed to join her husband Jasper and begin their new life on Guernsey, we share her despair as she realises she's been tied into a loveless marriage with a man who is in love with another and follow her as she escapes Guernsey after a terrible tragedy occurs for which she blames herself.
Tilly is a wonderful main character and Freeman writes her story beautifully, we long for Tilly to find happiness and share with her the guilt she carries with her for the events she is fleeing from. Ember Island proves a wonderful setting for the novel, an island with a prison on it where she finds herself fulfilling the role of governess to Nell, the only daughter of the widowed prison governor Sterling. She finds herself glimpsing happiness on the island but struggles when she forms a friendship with a prisoner on the island, Hettie, and draws comparisons between her own circumstances and those of the inmate.
Although it is a good blend in this book of the modern and the historic, almost the book could have stood alone as a purely historical novel. Whilst Nina's story is interesting and gives us a chance to refocus during the novel by stepping back from Tilly's world, I question whether in fact it added anything to the narrative or if like me readers have found themselves just skimming them so they could return to the heart of the action. I wanted this book to be a 5-star review, and at points I thought it had that potential but I also felt that the ending in some ways was not as satisfying as the beginning of the book. I wanted a more rounded conclusion. Instead, it seemed to be a little pulled together in a very small epilogue that left me wanting more for Tilly.
I would say that this book is my second favourite novel by this author after Wildflower Hill and if you are a lover of authors like Kate Morton and Rachel Hore then this is an author I am absolutely sure you will enjoy reading.