“A bluethroat morning. Before first light and the morning still: a velvet darkness.”
Alison Bliss, celebrity model and critically acclaimed writer, walks into the sea one ‘bluethroat morning’. In death she becomes a greater icon than in life, and the Norfolk village where she lived is soon a place of pilgrimage. Six years later her husband Harry, a schoolteacher, is still haunted by her suicide and faithful to her memory. Until he meets Helen and they fall in love.
Harry and Helen’s relationship initiates a return to the scene of Alison’s death where they meet ninety-eight year old Ern Higham, and a tale is revealed that has been generations in the making. As Harry pieces together a tragic history and finally confronts his own pain, he discovers that to truly move forward, first he must understand the past …
Seldom have I read such a novel. It is touted as a literary thriller, yet readers who are expecting overt thrills will be disappointed. The thrills contained within the pages of “Bluethroat morning” are elusive, subtle, and transitory.
On the surface, it is the story of Harold Bliss. A normal man, a teacher, who marries a modern legend who is twenty years younger than he. But what are ‘legends’ but skin and bone, emotions, frailties, and everything else that makes us human? When people are elevated to legend status, they are perceived as more than human. They are somehow elevated. This elevation does no one any favours. Least of all the person being elevated. In this case, Alison Oakley, a beautiful supermodel, is ridden with insecurities. Hounded by paparazzi (and one journalist in particular), she cannot escape the bubble of public acclaim. The masses think they somehow own her, and that they are entitled to her every move and thought. When she meets and marries Harry Bliss, she thinks that that invasive part of her life is over, but the public are slow to forget…
Alison Bliss is a woman of mercurial moods. I wondered while reading this story if perhaps she was almost bi-polar. She was ‘up’ and then sank into deep depressions. Some might attribute her moods to an artistic temperament. Whatever the reason, she must have been a challenge to live with. A renown supermodel, she strives for perfection and in so doing becomes anorexic. After marrying Harry she writes a novel which was somewhat autobiographical and garnered much acclaim. There is even a movie in the works based upon it. This does little to appease Alison’s lack of self regard. After that first novel she was adrift, suffering from ‘writer’s block’, she was constantly on the lookout for something to write about. Then she discovers an old family photograph of Harry’s great-grandfather Charles, Arabella, his second wife, and his young son, George She feels an instant connection – a buzz – and she knows she has embarked on her second novel.
“I wasn’t sure that I wanted her to write about my ancestors. I wasn’t sure that they were safe with her.”
She travels to the north Norfolk coast, to the village where Harry’s forebears lived, and rents Hope Cottage, where they once lived. She wants to immerse herself in the feel of the place. What better place to do her research and her writing? Then, just two weeks later, she walks into the sea and commits suicide.
“She will never write bad books. She will never grow old. Alison will always be young and vibrant, always the tortured soul.”
“When Alison took her life, she permanently altered mine.”
The whole story of “Bluethroat morning” is 58 year old Harry Bliss’s trying to come to terms with his wife’s suicide. Six years later, and he is no farther forward. His grief is still raw. He has been vilified by the press. They say he drove her to it. Their darling. They accuse him of burning the manuscript for her newest book which was found in the grate at Hope Cottage.
Then, a week before he is due to embark on an early retirement, he is invited to his best friend’s house for dinner. This will prove a life-changing event, for it is there that he meets his friend’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Helen. She strongly resembles the woman in the photograph that his wife had based her book upon. There is an instant attraction. Despite the almost forty year age difference, they fall in love. Helen has an obsession with his late wife. She has a ‘girl-crush’ on this fabled woman who was both brilliant and beautiful. Helen accompanies Harry to Norfolk as he tries to come to terms with Alison’s decision to end her life.
In an attempt to understand Alison’s suicide, Harry abandons his job, and his reputation – with the added bonus of losing both his best friend, and his self-respect.
In Norfolk, they meet Ern Higham, a man in his late nineties, who lives alone in a cottage on the marsh. Alison had befriended this old man, and he shared his memories and secrets with her. He gives Harry a notebook that Alison had left with him… Ern seems to have had an intimate connection with the long dead Arabella.
It seems that there were many similarities between Alison’s life and the life of Arabella, the woman in the old photograph.
Is history doomed to repeating itself? How much grief can a person stand, and remain sane?
Bluethroat Morning is ultimately a novel about human frailty, loss, regret, obsession, and the infinite varieties of love. It is also about the corrosive nature of celebrity and the parasitic intrusiveness of paparazzi. Most of all, it is a book about children who lose their mothers prematurely, and how this loss, and other childhood events, shape their future lives.
This novel created a strange feeling in me while I read it. It was almost as though it was ephemeral, with a dream-like, elusive quality. The writing was nothing short of beautiful with an almost poetic feel. The author’s eloquence in describing the awesomely eerie Norfolk landscape was a treat to read. The pace was very slow, and the book was quite long, so I can imagine it would not appeal to everyone. Those who do take undertake the read will be rewarded with a sensual, hauntingly poignant, and memorable story.
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I received a complimentary digital copy of this novel from the publisher, Blackbird Digital Books, in order that I could participate in this promotional blog tour. This in no way influenced my rating or review of this book.
Jacqui Lofthouse began her career in radio production and media training. In 1992 she studied for her MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia under Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain. She is the author of four novels, The Temple of Hymen (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin 1995/1996), Bluethroat Morning (Bloomsbury 2000/Blackbird 2018), Een Stille Verdwijning, (De Bezige Bij 2005) and The Modigliani Girl (Blackbird 2015). Her novels have sold over 100,000 copies in the UK, the USA and Europe and have been widely reviewed.
Follow Jacqui Lofthouse on Twitter @jacquilofthouse