The House at Silvermoor
Tracy Rees’s fifth novel is set in a South Yorkshire mining community in the years 1897 to 1905. Tommy and Josie are childhood friends and ultimately sweethearts from neighbouring rival villages, and the novel is told through their distinctive alternating voices. Tommy’s is a notably cultured one, though we learn early that he, like all his companions, has had to leave school early and go underground. Yet Tommy dreams of another life, of books and daylight, and so we read on (with ease, as this novel is so beautifully written) to find out just what has enabled him to take another course and to tell his story as he does. The pits are owned by the Sedgewicks, in their own way enlightened, and the Barridges, whose only concern is to get the most they can out of the labour of their employees, regardless of legalities.
Rees descends from Welsh coal-mining stock, but the story she tells is set in a time preceding any real concerns for the safety of those who toiled to get coal. The miners pack their caps with folded newspaper; that is their protective headgear. The description of Tommy’s experiences underground is terrifying, vivid and claustrophobic; I read on breathlessly desperate for him to return to the surface, filthy and exhausted but safe. Tommy’s life takes a different turn when he and Josie make the acquaintance of Manus, a Boo Radley-like recluse in a lonely house owned by the Barridges. Josie also takes a different course in life from that mapped out for her, a process hastened by her mother’s unkindness and the revelation of a mystery surrounding her birth. The denouément is truly satisfying, with all loose ends tied up – tight plotting lightly worn.