A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole’s atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.
I kept picking up this book when I was in the bookshop, as it just seemed to draw me towards it, but I didn’t buy it. I love Scotland, so the name piqued my interest, plus the cover is very nice. I like epistolary novels and the time period it’s set in. Then finally, the clincher was that it was recommended as similar to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which absolutely sealed the deal… Alas, I am disappointed. That was a cruel comparison to make, as this book just couldn’t reach it, but I wanted something of a similar feeling.
It felt like every time I got into the story, an anachronism or misuse of a word would crop up. I found it really frustrating, as it makes me think the research for this book was sloppy. Making a Scotswoman on Skye use the word “sweater”, for example. In 1912. No. Just… no. Brockmole is American, but surely her editor would have picked this up? Or she’d have noticed her using an Americanism herself? Then, having Elspeth say that she had “a good supply of neeps, swedes and tatties” is sloppy. SWEDES ARE NEEPS. They are the same thing. Neeps are not turnips. For the love of God, authors, if you’re setting a novel in a foreign country, do your research. That is what set Burial Rites apart- the research was flawless. These little problems (there were more than just these two examples) throw a person out of the story and made my reading of this novel less pleasurable than it could have been.
I didn’t like the character of Elspeth much at all. I did like David, but Elspeth just rubbed me the wrong way until right near the end. Their story was sweet (nearly too sweet), but because I really didn’t like one half of the coupling, it was a bit hard to stay focused. I must say, I did spend the last 20 pages or so reading through tears, so something must have worked. Or I’m just an emotional wreck… that too.
I liked the dual timelines of the narrative, but I felt like we spent far more time with Elspeth and David. That meant that the characters in the second timeline were far less fleshed out, so it was far harder to feel much for them. I think more could have been done with that timeline in general, so it was more of an equal being than just a means to facilitate the ending.
I also thought the letters didn’t seem much like letters. Some were very short- so short that they seemed like a quick email, not a letter to a loved one overseas. Yes, they were sweet and nice and meaningful, but there was something missing in the execution.
I’m going to rate this 3.5 out of 5, because I did end up enjoying it and liking the characters enough to cry over the ending, but there were things missing in it for me. Perhaps if the ending was longer and not so quickly tied up, it would have reached a 4 star. If it had been executed better, with proper research, the story could have hit the 5 star mark. Maybe even if it hadn’t been compared to one of my favourite books, it wouldn’t have ended up disappointing me so. Perhaps, just maybe, I need to be less critical of little mistakes, but the little mistakes in this one made me question far more about it than I might have before.