Review of Call of the Curlew [The Orphan of Salt Winds], by Elizabeth Brooks

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The Orphan of Salt Winds was previously published in England as Call of the Curlew, a title that also plays a role in the story itself. Following the rule for literary scholars and bibliographers, I shall refer to the book by its original title. I wondered what other changes the American editors introduced to justify their presence, but it’s likely that the ‘flashlight” that figures in the story was really a “torch” and that the odious Mr. Deering’s Austin 12 had a “bonnet,” not a “hood.” But the setting remains the low-lying coast of East Anglia with its treacherous tides and dangerous currents. These also are crucial to the story, and attracted me as a reader. Having enjoyed many happy times sailing from West Mersea in my younger days, I was eager to revisit the location.

This is a two-track narrative. The backstory takes place at the beginning of the Second World War and unfolds over two years. Virginia, an eleven-year-old orphan girl, has been adopted by Clem and Lorna Wrathmell (a name that seems simultaneously ominous and homely) and come to live at an old house on the coast, Salt Winds. The contemporary narrative is set on New Year’s Eve, 2015, as the aged Victoria contemplates adventuring into the marsh for the last time.

Clem is a nature writer living in a perfect location; Lorna is a children’s book illustrator. Virginia and Clem immediately form a strong bond, but there seems a tension with Lorna. There is also the officious well-off neighbor Mr. Deering, a widower with daughter Juliet and her obnoxious younger sibling Theodore. Not only does Mr. Deering’s interest in Lorna seem sinister and obsessive, but he attempts unsuitable familiarities with Virginia. Juliet is an early victim of the German raids when a bomb obliterates her railway carriage as she was returning to school On the night of 31st December 1940, Virginia sees through the window a German fighter aircraft crash into the marsh. Even if the pilot survived, he would surely drown. But Clem, confident in his knowledge and experience, takes a rope and torch to try to rescue the downed enemy pilot if he is still alive. Clem never returns, but Virginia never loses hope that he somehow survived and faithfully awaits his return. Best stop here with the plot to avoid spoilers.

I confess some disappointment with Call of the Curlew, though I think it’s not undeserving of the high praise it has received from readers such as Claire Fuller. It is a very slow boiler even though it has a thriller climax that I didn’t find quite believable—this villain never would have had the nerve actually to shoot anyone. And what some might term the “big reveal” most readers will see coming from afar. I don’t mind that—the best books are those you can read again after you know the plot. But I don’t think Call of the Curlew is one. And though a mysterious child is introduced from out of the night to give us some gothic frisson, and the setting so recalls The Woman In Black, I was just never scared, not ever a little bit. I shall be watching out for future books by Elizabeth Brooks, but this one didn’t quite come together for me. The ingredients of plot, character and setting represent the best traditions of the classical English ghost story, but the dish seemed bland and overcooked.

I am grateful to Galley Club for the favor of a gratis copy in exchange for my review.

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