Liverpool Cathedral was built over the course of the 20th century. As may be expected for such an impressive structure, it took many decades to complete. Progress stalled during both World Wars due to shortages of manpower and materials. The cathedral now ranks as the fifth-largest in the world. Built on St James’s Mount, the shape of the site required that the nave be oriented north to south rather than, as is traditional, west to east. Some believed this would bring bad luck.
The principle characters in The Blackbird certainly suffer their share of misfortune. Across alternating chapters, the story has two main timelines. It opens in 1941 with an accident on a building site where a much reduced team of masons are constructing the tall, central tower of a cathedral. As a result of the incident, a young man is grievously injured. Will Jenner, the on-site manager, blames himself for being persuaded to set the men to work.
Will is married to Mary and they have an eight year old daughter, Hope. The family moved to the city, away from family in rural Derbyshire, when offered the prestigious job opportunity. Will expects his wife to share with him every detail of how she spends her days. When she takes an interest in the hospitalised worker, Will grows suspicious of her motives. He requires that she be quietly obedient, becoming angry if she acts in any other way.
The growing cathedral, and Will’s behaviour, cast a shadow over his family. This is exacerbated by regular, night time aerial bombing raids. Homes have been razed and many killed. People must continue to function despite fear and sleep deprivation.
Moving to 2014, a young mother, Louise, has recently moved into a new flat with her toddler son, Jake. It is a fresh start and one she is content with. Jake’s father, Benny, broke her heart when he left them. Now she is in a relationship with an old friend, Carl, although still relishes her independence. When Benny shows up on her doorstep expecting to be taken back, Louise rejects him. Angered by her reaction, Benny refuses to leave them be.
There is a linking character across the two timelines – Hope – who in 2014 is struggling to care for her elderly husband; Robert has dementia and his behaviour is deteriorating. Through Hope’s thoughts and recollections the reader gains a different perspective on the events her father had to deal with through the war years and beyond.
Undercurrents of male violence percolate along with the limitations in agency women suffer due to their circumstances. The veracity of memory and perceived impact on subsequent decisions is explored and queried. Characters’ choices not to share their reasoning and personal justifications with those around them have damaging consequences. Jealousy and blame pervade.
It took a few chapters before the quality of the writing gripped me. What at first appeared an unremarkable if smoothly told tale established pleasing depth. The plot, whilst engaging, became secondary to my interest in character development. The impact of experience and situation are used to particularly impressive effect.
The structure is well balanced between detail and flow. This was a story I was eager to get back to each time I had to break away. Layered and nuanced yet never heavy, a good read that I am happy to recommend.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Henningham Family Press.
This review is a stop on The Blackbird Blog Tour 2020. Do check out the other fine posts, detailed above.
The publisher has kindly offered to send a copy of this book to one lucky reader who enters my Twitter giveaway. Follow me here and RT the relevant tweet (from around 8am today) to be in with a chance to win (UK only, ends 5pm BST 31/7/2020).