REVIEW: Susanna Kearsley’s THE SPLENDOUR FALLS … “On Castle Walls”

The Splendour FallsElgar’s Salut d’Amour for violin and piano is one of the composer’s early efforts, charming, moving, though minor in light of the entire oeuvre.  It informs the raison d’être of Kearsley’s Splendour Falls, this greeting of love, this welcoming.  Kearsley’s novel is also an early work, a reissue of a 1995 effort.  Its rawness is evident, the writer not yet in full control of her material, characters, or themes.  These elements are excessive: too many characters, too much detail, a bogging down of the narrative, and various threads  abandoned.  Nevertheless, Miss Bates enjoyed it.  She recognized in it the promise of what Kearsley does in The Winter Sea, or recent Firebird.  (Miss Bates hasn’t read these titles, but she’s read rave reviews.)  There is much to like in The Splendour Falls and like it Miss Bates did.  She can’t embrace it wholeheartedly, but it is thoughtful, serious, and contains wonderfully lyrical descriptive language.  It’s a quiet book; what it lacks in action, it makes up for in thought.  It’s not riveting, but it is well-written and the narrator’s voice is introspective, engaging and sympathetic.  

One of the things Miss Bates thinks skillfully and beautifully done is Kearsley’s layering of history.  The novel is set in Chinon, in France’s Loire Valley.  It opens with Isabelle d’Angoulême, wife to King John (of Robin-Hood-nasty fame).  She awaits rescue, as an invading army threatens Chinon Castle.  Isabelle’s story is one of love and yearning and unhappy endings.  Enter our present-day, diffident, English, only-child heroine, Emily Bragan, in Chinon to holiday with her cousin, Harry, who is researching the castle, its inhabitants, mysterious tunnels, and sad history.  He’s convinced Emily to visit, but when she arrives, he is nowhere to be found, even though he was supposed to pick her up from the train station.  This is typical of Harry’s absent-minded-professor-to-be demeanour.  Emily is not worried, but as she learns about the town and its denizens, French and foreign, she suspects that something is rotten in the town of Chinon.  The historic panorama of Isabelle of Angoulême’s story is layered over by the WWII tragedy of another Isabelle (who worked in the Hotel de France where Emily is staying) and Hans, the German soldier she loved and lost.  Like an archaeological dig, Kearsley layers the Medieval era, follows with Isabelle from WWII; and, filters these stories through our present-day narrative voice, Emily.

These stories are bound up with treasures lost and cursed, and ghosts who require recompense.  Isabelle of Angoulême buried one treasure under the castle walls and Isabelle of WWII another.  Unearthed treasure brings those who seek monetary gain, those who cherish history, and others who want to learn how the treasures connect to their heritage.  Our Emily contends with a motley crew of characters: who can she trust?  Everyone she meets and Emily herself must come to internalize, in this tale of greed and history and sin and redemption, the truth of Isabelle and King John’s exchange , “She might have thought he loved his Treasury above all else, had it not been for the day she’d teased him about it and he’d caught her to him … and told her: ‘You are my treasure.’ ”  Kearsley’s novel affirms the truth of “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Gospel of Luke, KJV).

Every writer’s early work makes their influences obvious.  In Kearsley’s case, there are echoes of Mary Stewart (as Sunita pointed out more eloquently in the review Miss Bates links to above) & Daphne du Maurier.  Miss Bates recently read the opening of Stewart’s Madam, Will You Talk?  It is uncanny how the atmosphere and tone of Kearsley’s novel reflects Stewart’s.  Indeed, it was, for Miss Bates, one of the aspects of Splendour Falls that she appreciated: that combination of French countryside beauty, charm, good food and wine, with something ominous and mysterious in the characters and history seeped into stone walls and habitations.  The du Maurian influence is evident in Armand Valcourt, owner of Clos des Cloches, the vineyard that abuts Chinon.  Armand is handsome and dark, does great Gallic shrugs, lights cigarettes with insouciance, and flirts charmingly.  He is also a widower whose social-butterfly beauty of a wife, Brigitte, née Muret, died last year.  This is not explored, or exploited, however, but explained away, one of the narrative threads that never quite meshes.  Armand is one of two love interests for our Emily and Kearsley is clever in luring the reader into rooting for him.

Another aspect of the novel that Miss Bates enjoyed was Emily’s deprimé tone.  In mood she is melancholy and, in conversation, cynical.  Emily no longer believes in the possibility of romantic love.  Witness her conversation with Paul Lazarus, a young Canadian she meets at the Hotel de France, ” ‘You don’t believe, then, in a love that lasts a lifetime?’  ‘I don’t believe … in love that lasts till teatime.’ ”  And here, in her musings about the go-out-and-search-for-adventure message of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” “I’d thought that beautiful, once.  But now I knew it was a wasted effort, chasing sunsets.”  What makes Emily jaded and unhappy, skittish of men and relationships?  The answer is one of the less satisfying threads to The Splendour Falls.  Her parents’ marriage of thirty years ended in divorce five years ago, when Emily was 23.  Now, is that a reasonable attitude for a 28-year-old?  Miss Bates did not find that aspect convincing.  And even if it is so, Kearsley seems to intimate at heart-ache in Emily’s past aside from her parents’ divorce.  This particular thread was left by the wayside, so the character’s reactions and motivations were never quite plausible.

There are two mysteries to be solved in The Splendour Falls: one, the disappearance of Emily’s cousin, Harry; and, the other, the mysterious death of a man who might have been in contact with him, Didier Muret, married to Martine Muret, Brigitte’s sister.  The setting of the Hotel de France brings Emily into contact with interesting characters, some of whom help her in solving the mysteries, others who hinder, and one, Neil Grantham, who stands as rival to Armand for her affections.  The most sympathetic of the lot are Paul and Simon Lazarus, two irrepressible Canadian brothers, who become Emily’s fast friends, and one of whom, Paul, her mystery-solving side-kick.  There is an American couple staying at the Hotel as well, Garland and Jim Whitaker; Garland, bitchy and unpleasant; and Jim, long-suffering and silent.  Neil Grantham is a virtuoso violinist who’s retreated to the Hotel de France to practice for his upcoming performances with the philharmonic in Vienna.  Neil as “love interest” reminded Miss Bates of a Neelsian (sorry about the pun!) hero: older, wiser, patiently waiting for his love to do some growing up.  Though one does not immediately warm to him, he does have his charms and is a formidable rival to Armand of the impatient hands and slick lines.  There is also a mysterious gypsy &  his dog, ever-present and vigilant outside the Hotel de France, who play revelatory roles.  There’s an affectionate, flea-ridden cat who’s key to the HEA.

Emily confronts ghosts and shadows, in dream states and waking.  Kearsley cleverly manipulates these spectres to suggest the bearing of the past on the present, and the importance of putting the dead to rest before finding one’s life.  The past demands justice and recompense; what forms these take, whether harsh or merciful, is essential to Emily’s understanding of what life will hold for her.  Miss Bates wishes that Emily took her own past into greater consideration in choosing life and love by the end, but maybe finding justice for the dead, or an understanding of it, helped her work through her personal ghosts.  Kearsley does some of the finest of her writing in illustrating these themes.  Miss Bates loved Emily’s glimpses into the past, such as this revelation: ” … for a moment, there in the bar of the Hotel de France, the echoes of the past came calling.”  They do, indeed, Emily, for all of us.  Miss Bates also loved this lightening-quick description of Emily’s Watson-to-her-Holmes, Paul Lazarus, whose very name bespeaks a rebirth, a second-chance, “For a brief instant … he looked like some young hero from the Old Testament, a David yearning for the battlefield.  But then I blinked and there was only Paul.” 

As the mysteries unfold and come to a head in a painful way, Emily must come to realize that sometimes it’s not possible to redress the past,  “Hindsight … was like a punishment, remorseless in its clarity, and painfully unable to change what had gone before.”  This makes it all the more important to be receptive to taking a chance on love, risking the heart; Emily realizes how closed her life has been when she stands before ancient images in the Chapelle of St. Radegonde,  “They had an odd effect on me, those saints.  Though they were trapped in shadows, while I had open sky above me, I felt somehow that it was me, not them, shut in behind the iron bars; that their eyes saw a wider world than mine.”  While this is primarily a mystery/gothic novel, the romance does involve a knight-in-shining-armour for our Emily: ” … some weight I didn’t fully understand, a melancholy ages old, was lifted … and drifted like an answered prayer into the darkness.  ‘It’s all right, don’t be frightened, now … I’m here.’ ”  It be would utterly churlish and wrong of Miss Bates to tell you who wins Emily … but the best man does triumph.

In Kearsley’s The Splendour Falls, there is more mystery than romance, more self-discovery than wooing.  Miss Bate was driven to read it to find out what happened, but yearned to know how Emily and Armand?/Neil? work things out.  Alas, there was utter reader satisfaction vis-à-vis the former, but a dearth of the latter.  Though the message of the novel is that love and mercy are more important than justice, justice is still what drives the narrative, what determines the content.  And this has always left Miss Bates discontented when she’s reading mysteries … and she’s read a lot of mysteries, pre-MBRR.  She would still recommend Kearsley’s early novel to you, however, for its wonderful writing, ghostly presences, richness of historical detail, and sympathetic characterization.  Miss Bates finds in Kearsley’s The Splendour Falls “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.   

Susanna Kearsley’s The Splendour Falls has been available from Sourcebooks, in the usual places and formats, since January 1, 2014.

Miss Bates is grateful to Sourcebooks for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.

Have you read Susanna Kearsley’s winning combination of suspense, gothic romance, and history?  What are your thoughts?  Which of her books do you consider your favourites?  Share your thoughts with Miss Bates in the comments. 

6 thoughts on “REVIEW: Susanna Kearsley’s THE SPLENDOUR FALLS … “On Castle Walls”

  1. I am only skimming this review because I have the book in my TBR. But I love the beginning (of your review, I mean), and I’m looking forward to reading the novel even more now. And thanks for mentioning my review. The Winter Sea is one of the best books I’ve read in the last decade or so. It’s my subconscious yardstick for every book since.

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    • This is really quite funny because Miss B. skimmed your Winter Sea review because she has plans to read that after Seidel’s Again! Now Miss B. is looking forward to it even more. She needs a yardstick. 😉

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  2. I suspected that it was a re-issue of an oldie–but I knew I hadn’t read it–so it will be new to me. Like Sunita, I just skimmed your review, because the book should land in my (very cold) hands soon.

    Now, (mumble, mumble) I wish her publisher would get around to e-editions of ‘Named of the Dragon’ and ‘Season of Storms”, as I have mislaid/lost my pb copies of those titles (sob).

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    • Yes, Miss B. did too, suspect re-issue, which is why she went to book lists and such. Miss B. really hopes you enjoy it; there are some great things in it.

      Oh, what a bummer … to lose your copies of beloved books. If it’s any comfort, Miss B. had a copy of Season Of Storms, an unread copy, which someone borrowed and never returned. It’s strange about books as objects: how they are mislaid, lost … oh well, at least she can guilt a return, not like when Miss B’s copy of The Moonspinners was stolen …

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    • My library has both those books as e-books–but I’m betting this is one of the rare occasions when geo-restrictions work in favor of Canadians.

      I have STILL not read Kearsley (I know, I know) but have lots in TBR and was thrilled to see library has a complete e-book set.

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      • Miss B. hadn’t read Kearsley either! But she was glad to read an early title, now to compare to how she’s developped, really enjoy that. She does have a different publisher in Canada, not sure how much in favour of Canadians that is? 😉

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