Book Review: A Long Shadow

A Long Shadow, by Caroline Kington, is a family saga set on a farm in the English West Country. It includes mystery, history and suspense. There are beautiful people and admirers vying for their attention. There are unpleasant characters and, by the end, the reasons behind their behaviour. There is the death of a farmer, Dan Maddicott, and a trail of clues to keep the reader guessing if his demise was accidental or something more sinister.

Before laying the groundwork for the main storyline, the reader is introduced to Susan who, as a teenager during the Second World War, fell pregnant to an American GI. Her cruel stepmother packed her off to a house of shame where such fallen women would give birth before handing their babies over for adoption. Susan plans her escape but ends up in an equally perilous predicament. The story moves back and forth between Susan’s subsequent life and that of Kate, Dan’s wife, at the start of the new millennium.

A third timeline details Dan’s life, cut short when he dies due to the discharge of a shotgun. Dan’s family have owned and run Watersmeet Farm for generations. Although an only child he has many cousins, two of whom, Max and Mary, he saw regularly throughout his childhood. Their visits to the farm ceased after an episode on a tenant’s property that inflamed a long running enmity. Jem and then Frank Leach are thorns in the side of the Maddicotts, but ones their landlords have little appetite to displace.

Dan lives within a close knit community and becomes the envy of his many friends. Until the BSE and then Foot and Mouth crises his farm prospered. The cattle he raises are regarded as of high quality. Dan wins the hand of the beautiful Kate who becomes his loving wife. We learn of their meeting and courtship; we are introduced to their two small children. That Dan’s death occurred shortly after he took out a life insurance policy has set local tongues wagging and causes his grieving widow to dig deeper into the farm’s history.

There are many supporting characters adding colour and shade. Dan has a loyal farm manager who supports Kate after her husband’s death. There are other farm hands who have varying inter-rivalries. Dan’s mother is calm and supportive and also a terrible cook. Kate’s mother in Cambridge is garrulous and selfish, blatantly favouring her younger daughter, the enchanting Emily.

Kate’s admirers include Max, an old flame. She grows closer to a widower who owns and runs a nearby farm. Her friends include Mary whose marriage suffers its own challenges. Acquaintances rally from across the country when Kate requires assistance. Despite the difficulties encountered over time by characters – domestic violence, alcoholism and homelessness, culls of livestock – at its heart these people have an enviable support network.

The tragedies, the comic characters, the question of how Dan died, keep the reader turning the pages. The writing is polished and well paced with a structure that maintains interest. The denouement tied up threads without changing characters’ behaviour.

There were few snags in the writing. I was, as ever, irritated by the need to mention a woman’s soft breasts. I was perplexed that pubic hair could be described as silky. Can people have button eyes? – I couldn’t picture what this meant. Such minor issues can be accepted when the tale, although in places idealistic, held its reader’s attention.

I enjoyed the moments of humour such as the older ladies’ competitive grandparenting. Emily was granted a great deal of power but perhaps men do fall so hard for a pretty woman who showers them with attention. Ivan was, unusually, an MP I regarded with a degree of empathy.

The setting offered an interesting perspective on farming with its never ending demands and ingrained duty. Taking Kate, a city girl, and placing her far from her burgeoning media career, much to the chagrin of family and friends, allowed the financial problems Dan encountered and then didn’t share with her some authenticity. The difficulty young farmers had finding partners now that women expect greater support and autonomy was just one of several asides to ponder.

This is a book worth considering if looking for a tale that is neatly written and not particularly demanding. Rural drama with sufficient variety and suspense to maintain reader engagement.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.