When Rosamund, a nurse who specialises with terminally ill patients, is offered a job caring for Benny Gault in his last days, it takes her back to Fairfleet, a house which once belonged to her grandmother. As a young teenager, Rosamund and her brother, Andrew, lived in Fairfleet for a short time after their parents were divorced but the death of their grandmother left the family in a vulnerable position.
While Clarissa struggles to keep the family afloat, she falls prey to the manipulative Cathal Pearse, an itinerant who worms his way into Clarissa’s affections. As Cathal’s hold over their mother increases, a violent episode leads to a tragedy that claims Clarissa’s life and leaves the children vulnerable to Cathal’s lies. While Cathal escapes justice, the children lose their claim on Fairfleet and are reunited with their father.
Thirty years later, still haunted by grief and guilt, Rosamund is determined to face her demons by returning to Fairfleet to find a letter written by Clarissa to her lawyer which will incriminate Cathal. As Clarissa gets to know her new employer, Benny Gault, it isn’t long before she realises the old man has one or two secrets of his own and is linked to Fairfleet in a way she never would’ve imagined. Together, Rosamund and Benny find solace in one another, one hoping for redemption before death claims him and the other hoping to leave the past behind to embrace the future.
The One I Was is a beautifully written story about two people, Benny and Rosamund, who are basically trapped by the choices they made as children and their inability to get past them. Much of the story is told from the point of view of Rosamund, firstly as an adult returning to Fairfleet but once there, memories of her past surface and her story moves between the present and the fateful few months when Cathal came into her life when she was a child. Initially, Cathal seems to be the answer to their prayers as his advice becomes invaluable to Clarissa but he slowly ingratiates himself until they are all dependent on him.
The author does a great job of introducing Cathal because he certainly seems sincere enough in the beginning, however the odd flash of temper and controlling behaviour are all warning signs that all is not as it seems. The only one who mistrusts Cathal completely is Smithy, the longterm housekeeper, but Cathal, seeing her as a threat, drives her away and afterwards the family are at his complete mercy. Cathal continues to lose control to the extent the children become aware he is trying to destroy their mother to get his hands on Fairfleet, but they are alone and powerless. Fortunately for Rosamund, her mother has begun to suspect Cathal’s intentions but a confrontation leads to Clarissa’s death.
The adult Rosamund, still haunted by the events of her childhood, thinks the only way she can move forward is by finding the letter Clarissa wrote to her lawyer just prior to her death which will prove Cathal’s duplicity once and for all. Rosamund decides to keep her true identity a secret from Benny, thinking he will dismiss her if he knows her connection to Fairfleet, but she is astonished when she realises Benny has known all along and has his own links to Fairfleet.
Benny Gault, formally Benjamin Goldman, came to England as a German Jewish refugee and lived at Fairfleet where he was sponsored by Clarissa’s mother, Harriet, and her first husband. Harriet is a fascinating character as she was a female pilot who flew Spitfires during the war, so it is hardly surprising a young Benny becomes enamoured with her. As Benny grows older, his affection for Harriet becomes stronger and appears to be reciprocated but attempts at taking their relationship to the next level always seem to be thwarted. It would’ve been easy to succumb to soap opera territory here but I liked how the author always found a way to interrupt Benny and Harriet so their relationship remained unconsummated.
The time Benny and Rosamund get to spend together is very short but there is a real beauty in the writing when they both unburden their souls to each other. The book actually begins with Benny’s arrival in England and there are a few chapters interspersed where he tells his own story but in the present, he is so weak he has to share his story in the form of a written confession on his laptop. Benny’s secret is actually easy to work out but it is no less emotional because of it.
The characters of Benny and Rosamund are written with real warmth and they engage your sympathy easily so you find yourself hoping they will find the peace they so obviously need. I will admit to not really liking the implied romance between Benny and Harriet because I really didn’t think it was essential to the story as Benny would’ve had an emotional tie to Fairfleet regardless, plus it wasn’t very convincing. The pace of the book is quite slow but if you stay patient, you will be rewarded.