The Rocking Stone

Written by Jill Rutherford
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

The novel opens with a newspaper article from 1973: in Pontypridd in Welsh mining country, a skeleton is found in an abandoned well, with a Miner’s Federation card dated 1934 (though its owner disappeared before the General Strike). What follows is the story of miner’s daughter Kate, told in the first person, starting in 1906 when she is a child. Though Kate dreams of a life beyond the pits, she is pursued by two brothers. Engaged to be married to Tom, calamity strikes weeks before their wedding, but Kate keeps what has happened to her secret, and works hard at her marriage despite the antagonism of her mother-in-law. Unguarded words in an argument lead to a chain of events in which Kate comes to suspect her husband of murder.

Rutherford’s depiction of life in this now-vanished mining community is impressive, to the degree that sometimes the book reads like a memoir, or like the protagonist’s interview with a social historian. This is both a strength and a weakness, for often Kate simply recounts a series of events, without giving much away of her emotional reaction, leading to a sense that the book needs to go deeper – the point where intimacy in the marriage finally ends is one example. There is the odd anachronism: two young men are caught making love (why in the parlour?), and whilst this leads to a split in the family, there is no suggestion that they were also, at that time, breaking the law.

Where the novel really comes alive is in Rutherford’s dialogue, and in her gift for description; I particularly liked the image of the rows of miners’ cottages seen from a hillside compared by Kate to a marching band. The twist at the end is extremely satisfying, and hints at a sequel.