A Cut above the Usual Page-turner

This is my review of The Crimson Rooms by Katharine McMahon.

This is a page-turner, on the cusp between literary and popular fiction: on the one hand, it is well-written with varied, complex characters and a detailed, reasonably watertight plot with plenty of twists; on the other, it is very easy to read with moments of high drama and romance. The heroine Evelyn's wry self-knowledge and "feet on the ground" attitude to life prevent the story from slipping into "Mills and Boon" territory.

Most likely to appeal to women – it would be interesting to know how men rate this novel – it finds fresh aspects to cover in the heavily harvested theme of World War 1. The focus is on its aftermath (1924) where women outnumber men, must often support themselves, yet have to battle to enter the professions such as law. The author uses the knowledge gained as a magistrate to create some convincing court scenes, as Evelyn struggles to develop a legal career, having persuaded a maverick solicitor to take her on. Her cases reflect the times: a man who may have shot his young wife out of jealousy, having been destabilised and brutalised by the effects of war; the feckless but loving mother in danger of having her three children shipped off to Canada under a "hidden" because clearly controversial method dealing with the problem of children in care. All this takes Evelyn's mind off her claustrophobic domestic life in an all female, convention-bound household, stultified in grief for the loss of her brother James at the Front.

The book commences with the arrival of Meredith, a charismatic young woman claiming to be the mother of James's son – the appealing six-year-old Edmund,who bears a striking resemblance to his father. Is Meredith genuine? What does she hope to manipulate out of the family? Meredith's unsettling effect, and the opportunity to release her bottled up affections on Edmund, make Evelyn ripe for a love affair in her emotionally suppressed state.

The structure of the story lends itself to a TV serialisation. The beginning is perhaps rather hackneyed: Evelyn imagining her brother's death through what turns out to be a dream, serving as a dramatic preparation for the sudden appearance of Meredith and Edmund in the middle of the night.

Where the pace may seem slow at times, it could be realistic in showing the frustration of trying to obtain evidence and continually drawing blanks in a legal investigation. It also gives scope to show the development of Evelyn's thinking, and her relationship with the other characters.

I did not mind the somewhat open ending, which the author seems to favour, since it seems "more like real life" and leaves the reader free to imagine a preferred future for Evelyn. The mixture of "success" and "failure" at the end also adds authenticity.

As regards reservations:

* although many scenes are genuinely moving, those in which key aspects of the plot are revealed strike me as overly melodramatic. In these, characters such as Meredith or Evelyn herself appear too articulate, effectively telling the reader in lengthy paragraphs what has happened rather than communicating convincingly with another character in a moment of high stress.

* the idea of Meredith having wanted to be a nun is implausible, and she needs to be older than 29 in the story to have been a confident and proficient nurse aged 22 at the time of her brief meeting with James.

* the book would have gained from developing more fully Nicholas's personality and motivations, and his relationships with the Hardynge family.

* people's reactions, such as those of Nicholas (over what Evelyn has to tell him) and Breen (over his client Wheeler's wishes) in the final scenes (can't be more explicit) appear to me somewhat unlikely.

* the details of the ending are needlessly rushed, after the "slow burn" of the main part of the novel.

Overall, to the extent that this is a gripping and thought-provoking read, I recommend it.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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