When the Wind Blows by Marguerite Steen
Publication date: 31st March 2017
Genre: Literary Fiction, Mystery & Thrillers
Length*: 5 hours 30 mins
(*based on the time it took me to read this title)
My rating: 3 out of 5
On Calvary, the wind never stops…
In the south Atlantic Ocean, sits the island of El Secredo – named Calvary by the first missionary settlers. Little has changed in Calvary since Jebusa Horne first landed on the island and proclaimed it fit for Christendom, in the late 19th century.
The world, meanwhile, has been through a Great War; prohibition and the jazz age have been and gone… When Reverend Smith Prudhomme and his wife came to continue the missionary on Calvary, at worse the Reverend had been warned of ‘Calvary beer’.
What he didn’t expect was Sanchia Mullyon.
Even as a child, Sanchia was different from the rest of the islanders. Spirited, questioning and highly imaginative, the islanders’ were disturbed by her apparent wildness – as wild as the winds that batter Calvary. Scared by her, both her parents and other elders tried to literally beat what they see is the ‘devil’ out of Sanchia. But cruelty begets cruelty and Sanchia becomes known for her brutal cruelness – both from her strength and her words. The only thing Sanchia seems affected by is the island and its animals; it’s well known she can’t bear to see the suffering of animals. Sanchia is now of marriageable age. And on an island that has an influx of men, women are highly prized.
She was promised in her cradle, to Gregory Jodrell; but in her usual fashion, Sanchia refuses to marry not only him, but also any other Calvary man. With a sense of unease in the island community, Reverend Smith is unsure of how to approach the problem. Moreover, Sanchia and by extension, his sympathetic wife Mrs Prudhomme, are chipping away at his once narrow minded views…
Then one stormy night, Sanchia in fear for her life, demands to be married to Gregory, right then and there. Even though it flies in face of all tradition, bordering on insulting, Reverend Smith marries them anyway. If the Islanders had hoped it would ‘tame’ Sanchia, they were wrong. If anything, she’s tamed Gregory.
And when a shipwreck lands the writer, Miss Lenox Robbins, and a mysterious man who can’t talk on their shores, Calvary and Sanchia are forever changed…
A gripping and intense novel, When The Wind Blows is a tale of a woman’s fortitude in the face of her home and community.
This is an e-book ‘reprinting’ of a title originally published in hardback and paperback in 1975. The author, Marguerite Sheen was a British writer who died the same year as this book was originally published. Her first major success was Matador, published in 1934, which was picked up by the Book Society in Britain and the Book of Month Club in the US. Her book The Sun Is My Undoing (published 1941) was a best-seller, both in the UK and the US, and was the first part of a trilogy saga about the slave-trade and Bristol shipping. Although she never achieved critical acclaim, she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1951. Her life spanned the Victorian, Edwardian, and modern eras and her observation of unprecedented societal, cultural, and technological change is evident in this novel.
It took me a little time to get into the story – my notes on the opening pages contain comments referring to what felt like odd wording, however the unusual and old-fashioned language soon reveals it’s character, lending itself to delicious phrases such as “filling them brimful of churned white water and spray” and “leaving them exposed like the vertebrae of some prehistoric monster”. Although this contributed to an opening which felt a little slow to begin with, it soon puts you into the mindset of the island and its inhabitants, who all speak with a heavy dialect, whose root I couldn’t decipher, but reminded me of the dialect used in Tony Harrison’s The Nativity. Be prepared, too, to have your dictionary and notebook at hand – words like “frowardly” (of a person difficult to deal with) and “pusillanimity” (showing a lack of courage or determination), which are little heard these days but feel delightful to say, are scattered throughout the book.
What is striking about the island of Calvary is not just its remote south Atlantic setting, but that nature has seen fit to make males so abundant that the birth of a girl is hoped for and celebrated. Whilst this could have lead to a matriarchal society, this is tragically not the case, with the female’s role being one of servitude amongst a militantly patriarchal structure.
Sanchia, as the only available female of marriageable age, is promised to George Jodrell, the most eligible bachelor on the island. As children of the two families which represent a kind of aristocracy on the island, they are expected to continue both their bloodlines. This duty is held above all else by the islanders since the predominance of men and lack of women mean that very few family lines will survive. George happily submits to this pressure, but wild child Sanchia rejects it, and all the customs and values of the island. Sanchia is desired by all of the men on the island, and the desires of Samson Hawkins are for, a short while, focused on, teasingly suggesting the possibility of a love triangle which never comes to fruition.
The shipwreck is when the story really kicks off and the tension and pace explode, with events and twists happening relentlessly. Perhaps, in this way, the narration is as unpredictable and forceful as the winds that batter the island.
The arrival of Lenox Robbins and the dumb man turn Sanchia and the island on their heads. Miss Robbins provides a refreshing change of tone with her polemic and self-important English, directly challenging the island’s way of life, the way the islanders think, and places blame unapologetically at the feet of Reverend Smith Prudhomme, who she thinks should make use better use of his position. She brings humour with her blunt observations and inability to stay out of other people’s business. The dumb man, unable to speak, due to the shock of his shipwrecking, is mysterious and intriguing, and given the fact that he contributes no dialogue, is nevertheless charismatic.
The latter part of the book moves with extraordinary pace, and the stakes are continually raised to the extreme, providing unpredictable twists that keep you on your toes and continually guessing how this will all end. Given the extraordinary end climax that the book builds towards, the very ending felt a little disappointing, as though it had been cut short by a page or two. All the same, this was an enjoyable read, and a brave undertaking of both narrative choices and a cast of characters, for whom my sympathies continually swung for and against.
Thank you to Netgalley and Endeavour Press for providing me with a Kindle copy of this book.