Published: 7 January 2014
Genre: Historical Fiction
Cecily Chadwick is idling away the long, hot summer of 1911 when a mysterious countess moves into the large, deserted country house on the edge of her sleepy English village.
Rumours abound about the countess’s many husbands and lovers, her opulent wealth, and the tragedies that have marked her life. As Cecily gets to know her, she becomes fascinated by the remarkable woman - riveted by her tales of life on the Continent, and of the famous people she once knew. But the countess is clearly troubled by her memories, and by ruinous secrets that haunt her…
Staying with the countess is a successful novelist and dear friend who has been summoned to write the countess’s memoirs. For aspiring writer Cecily, the novelist’s presence only adds to the intrigue of the house. But it is the countess’s grandson, Jack, who draws Cecily further into the tangled web of the countess's past, and sweeps her into an uncertain future…
When Cora, a countess, arrives in a small rural village to live in the house she had her husband build for her decades ago, she finds herself the focal point of gossip as the villagers become fixated on her colourful past. Cora, rumoured to have had five husbands and numerous lovers, has spent most of her life living abroad, vowing never to return to England. However, after her daughter-in-law commits suicide, Cora returns to be with her grandson, Jack, who is the only family she has left.
Aware her return has caused a great deal of speculation, Cora decides to set the record straight once and for all by engaging her longterm friend, Sylvia, to write her memoirs. However once they begin the project, Cora finds it hard to reveal the truth because she has been living a lie for so long. The two women clash repeatedly but Cora is determined to keep her secrets to protect her grandson even if it costs her Sylvia’s friendship.
The Memory of Lost Senses has been languishing on my Kindle since January, largely forgotten as other books caught my attention more, however this weekend I decided it was time to tackle it. I did enjoy Judith Kinghorn’s debut novel The Last Summer but while this book has a similar style, I found it somewhat exasperating.
The opening chapters are very reminiscent of The Last Summer as Kinghorn’s descriptive prose vividly brings the village to life in the long lazy days of summer which are almost idyllic in tone. However, the same sinister menace is lurking over the horizon as the shadow of war looms over the country and Cora finds it increasingly difficult to come to terms with a changing world. Kinghorn is adept at painting these scenes, so much so, you can almost feel the oppressive heat as you read.
The mystery of Cora’s life was initially intriguing with Kinghorn dropping enough hints to keep you interested, however I figured once the memoirs were begun, the tale would start to unfold and questions would be answered eventually. But that’s not what happens. Cora is so reluctant to reveal the truth, she avoids telling Sylvia anything, and her past becomes even more entangled as she falls back on her old fantasies. As the heatwave continues, Cora becomes feverish and her memories become even more muddled to the point even she doesn’t seem to know what is true.
By this time I was seriously frustrated as the book just seemed to be going around in circles and I was getting past the point of caring. The characters are also hard to get to grips with as you never really know who Cora is as she has reinvented herself so much and I really didn’t have much sympathy for her. Sylvia is also a strange character who is entirely obsessed with Cora to the extent that all her novels are based on some part of Cora’s life. Sylvia has secrets of her own though and I found it increasingly hard to believe she didn’t know more about Cora’s past since she was there for most of it.
More than 70% of the novel is set in 1911 and then we are suddenly transported to 1923 after Cora’s death. Even here, the story remains obscure as Sylvia is given a letter Cora wrote before her death but takes ages to read the damn thing. The obituary notices and Sylvia’s letter finally clear up some of the mystery but I’m sad to say that I had lost patience with the whole sorry tale by that stage.
Cora’s story would’ve been a fascinating one if the author had chosen to focus on it alone as it sweeps from England to the Continent and back again. Constantly on the run from her past, Cora cleverly manages to reinvent herself so many times, becoming a prominent member of society as she mixes with royalty, artists and other great people of the Victorian era. Cora’s epic romance with the famous artist, George Lawson, never really comes to life because of the way it is told and that is a little sad considering the heartbreak it caused.