>> Tuesday, March 29, 2016
When Lucy Waring's sister Phyllida suggests that she join her for a quiet holiday on the island of Corfu, young English Lucy is overjoyed. Her work as an actress has temporarily come to a halt. She believes there is no finer place to be "at liberty" than the sun-drenched isle of Corfu, the alleged locale for Shakespeare's The Tempest. Even the suspicious actions of the handsome, arrogant son of a famous actor cannot dampen her enthusiasm for this wonderland in the Ionian Sea.This was a bit of a revelation. I read a few of Mary Stewart's classics about 10 years ago and (with a single exception) liked them a lot. I found them atmospheric and fun, but I didn't quite get why people would absolutely adore these books. Well, I think I do now. Looks like I've finally reached the right point in my life for them, a bit like with the Vorkosigan books.
But the peaceful idyll does not last long. A series of incidents, seemingly unconnected - but all surrounded in mystery - throws Lucy's life into a dangerous spin, as fear, danger and death - as well as romance - supplant the former tranquility. Then a human corpse is carried ashore on the incoming tide... And without warning, she found she had stumbled into a nightmare of strange violence, stalked by shadows of terror and sudden death.
The setup is Stewart's usual "English heroine having adventures in exotic location". Fledgling actress Lucy Waring is between jobs, after her latest play folded abruptly in London. At loose ends, she accepts her sister's invitation to join her in Corfu for a few weeks. Lucky Lucy, her sister is married to a very rich Italian businessman whose family has had property in Corfu for many generations, so there's a lovely villa in a beautiful seaside location for her to stay in rent-free.
Lucy soon becomes embroiled in the life of the neighbourhood. This, most excitingly, includes the renowned actor Sir Julian Gale, who has been in seclusion after a family tragedy. This seclusion continues in Corfu and is guarded by his stand-offish son Max, whose first interaction with Lucy doesn't go too well. There's also Godfrey Manning, a photographer who's become friends with Lucy's sister, as well as a small group of locals who work for the foreigners. There's Maria, whose husband has been missing for years, presumed stuck in Albania (I didn't quite realise before starting this just how close these two places are). There's her two teenaged children, Spiro and Miranda, named by Sir Julian, who's their godfather. There's also their beautiful friend Adonis, whose name Lucy struggles with until he laughingly suggests she uses the local pronunciation of the name.
Trouble starts with an accidental drowning, closely followed by another one. Both are explainable on their own, but something is not quite right, and Lucy is soon mixed up in some very mysterious goings on.
This was wonderful fun. There's a suspense plot that makes sense and is entertaining. The identity of the villain isn't a huge mystery, but it's not meant to be. It's all in the figuring out of why and of how he can be stopped. I particularly loved that Lucy is an active, sensible participant in this investigation, and she's extremely brave. That said, the ending wasn't perfect. The final confrontation was fine, but felt a little bit anticlimactic, because Stewart had been building and building and building the tension, leading me to expect a magnificent, dramatic 'boom' moment, but it didn't quite deliver. Still, it worked perfectly fine.
There's a lovely bit of romance. No romance reader can look at my description and fail to guess that Max is going to be the man for Lucy. From that first encounter, I thought at first he was going to be one of those cruel, punishing heroes so popular at the time (really, really not my cup of tea), but he wasn't. He turned out to be much more to my taste than expected. And of course, it helps that Lucy is a strong, capable heroine who doesn't put up with any crap from anyone.
There's also the setting, which was fabulous. The location itself comes alive, but there's also a fair bit of geopolitics and a vivid sense of time and place. This was written in the mid-60s, and the sense of Corfu being at the crossroads of the fight between the West and the communist world is striking. The snowy peaks of Albania loom over much of the action, and I loved that.
Another thing I liked was how the Corfiot characters were important and had a life of their own. The reason I picked this one up now was a comment Susanna Kearsley left on my review of the first book in Nora Roberts' latest trilogy. There I complained that, although the book was set in Corfu, there was not one named Greek character. Susanna suggested This Rough Magic as a sort of antidote, and it definitely was that. Spiro, Miranda, Adonis, Maria and several others were real people, with their own interests apart from the lives of the foreigners. Lucy's narration was a touch condescending on one or two occasions, so it wasn't perfect, although she dealt with them as people, and people she liked and respected. Definitely a lot better than the Nora Roberts book!
I thoroughly enjoyed this. I think I'll be digging up my Mary Stewart collection over the next few months. The only disappointment is that they don't seem to be available as audiobooks. As I was reading This Rough Magic it struck me they would be absolutely perfect in that format. But no, audible only seems to have the Merlin books, and even my library system, which still has a fair few CDs and even cassettes, has nothing. Someone please get on this quick!
MY GRADE: An A-.
PS - I have said nothing about the dolphin! I loved the dolphin! :)