The Valley of Lost Stories by Vanessa McCausland arrived wrapped with a gold bow and handwritten note from the author. It was a lovely gesture from Vanessa and Harper Collins and an acknowledgement that 2020 has been pretty shitty for almost everyone and we should grasp any glimmer of light and joy we can get.
I read McCausland’s The Lost Summers of Driftwood last year and enjoyed it though took umbrage at a couple of references to the fact a character in her late 30s must have felt like a failure because she didn’t have a partner or child.
Her new novel similarly traverses women’s fiction – a group of women and the problems in their lives with parenting, relationships and their identities – but with a little suspense thrown in.The Valley of Lost Stories
by Vanessa McCausland
Published by HarperCollins - AU
Source: Harper Collins
Genres: Women's Fiction
Four women and their children are invited to the beautiful but remote Capertee Valley for a much-needed holiday.
Once home to a burgeoning mining industry, now all that remains are ruins slowly being swallowed by the bush and the jewel of the valley, a stunning, renovated Art Deco hotel. This is a place haunted by secrets. In 1948 Clara Black walked into the night, never to be seen again.
As the valley beguiles these four friends, and haunts them in equal measure, each has to confront secrets of her own: Nathalie with a damaged marriage; Emmie yearning for another child; Pen struggling as a single parent; and Alexandra hiding in the shadow of her famous husband.
But as the mystery of what happened seventy years earlier unravels, one of the women also vanishes into this bewitching but wild place, forcing devastating truths to the surface.
We’ve got several narrators here. The four women we meet in the present as well as a young wife and mother, Jean, in 1948. And finally a child who senses that their mother has gone and don’t understand why. The latter is cleverly done as it could be anyone, at any time.
The four women fall into a friendship. They happen to be sitting together at a school event when one wins a holiday and agree to take each other. In the few months before they go they meet and slowly get to know each other. Each of course keeping their secrets… sure the others will judge them or won’t understand. McCausland covers the gambit of married life and parenting. Being a bad mother and unsure if you love your child; unfaithful spouses; unhappy marriages; and an inability to get pregnant.
I’d usually struggle here a little as it’s less relatable for me than most. (And I keep vowing to stop reading books centred around motherhood and marriage!) However the women are all complex and interesting characters.
There’s an interloper on their holiday, their host Marcie. And if you’re like me you’re suspicious of her from the outset. Of course I’m like that with any extraneous characters but like the other women Marcie has her secrets and is – in some ways – too good to be true.
And then in the background there’s Jean, a former dancer who’s settled in the Blue Mountains with her husband who works in the mines and her young daughter. But who yearns for her old life and lets herself get drawn back into it… without knowing exactly what she’s getting into.
We know the story culminates in the disappearance of a mother, but McCausland cleverly keeps us guessing for some time as to who it is.
The sense of menace is only slight and it’s really there because we know someone goes missing. It was perhaps a little anticlimactic for this lover of suspense but it means however, this book is about more than four women amidst very separate existential crises.
There are of course more serious themes about the history of the land and the murder of the Indigenous population years before. And there’s a timely reminder we never really know what’s happening in others’ lives. Each of the women are jealous in some way of what the others have – not really knowing the full story.
For me it also raised the question of contentment. Should we settle with what we have, perhaps letting things fester; or should we act – even if we know many will be hurt in the process?
This is another engaging novel from McCausland and would be an excellent bookclub read as there’s much fodder for discussion.
The Valley of Lost Stories by Vanessa McCausland was published in Australia by Harper Collins in early December 2020.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.