Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is, as the title suggests, a novel about two characters – Elsie Boston and Rene Hargreaves – and reviewers have especially liked Rene and Elsie and the way their changing relationship is portrayed.
Most of the novel is set on the land – in the course of the novel, the characters live and work in Berkshire, Cumbria and Cornwall – and reviewers have particularly enjoyed how the English countryside is represented during a particular period – the 1940s and 1950s. The book’s narrative includes a strand which explores the world of silent British cinema – Rene adores films. This screen world is crucial to the crime that lies at the centre of the book and the trial that engulfs them.
Winner: Gladstone’s Library Writers in Residence 2018
Penguin website: ‘Uncovering my grandmother’s extraordinary secrets’, a piece I wrote Malik about how I came to write the novel.
Woman’s Hour, 28 April – Interview with Rachel Malik and reading from the novel
Sunday Times review, 30 April: an ‘unflamboyantly effective tale’; ‘this is a surprisingly moving account of hidden lives forced out of the shadows’
Daily Mail review, 21 April : ‘Part period piece, part courtroom drama, this is also a touching love story’
Sunday Telegraph, Stella magazine, 16 April, ‘We love’ selection
Red, Prima and Good Housekeeping magazines, April selection: ‘Breathtaking debut’ (Prima)
Some blogger reviews
WhatCathyReadNext: Best Books I’ve read so far in 2017
‘I really became immersed in the story and totally engaged with the two main characters, Rene and Elsie.
From the start, Elsie is an enigmatic character, cherishing her solitude and resisting intrusion from neighbours, seeing this as ‘encroachment’. At the same time, she has a ‘lonely power’ that proves strangely attractive to Rene: ‘Elsie wasn’t quite like other people, but that didn’t matter to Rene’. Elsie’s strangeness is communicated in small ways, such as by gestures. When Rene first arrives at Starlight Farm: ‘She had offered her hand to Elsie, and Elsie had reached out hers but it wasn’t a greeting – Elsie had reached out as if she were trapped and needed to be pulled out, pulled free’. Gradually, they find each meets a kind of need in the other – Elsie, for companionship and a conduit to the outside world, and Rene, for refuge from her past: “Elsie knew that Rene fitted. A stranger to be sure, but one who didn’t make her feel strange.’… This book is probably not everyone’s cup of tea (not that there isn’t plenty of tea drinking in it) but I absolutely fell in love with it.’
Siobhan Dunlop /Fiendfully Reading
‘The core of the novel is the two characters, with Malik slowing building up detail about them. Rene’s past and her escape from her husband and children is classic historical novel material, but it is also at how the war could change lives in ways that would be irrevocably different when it was over….This is a slowly revealed and moving novel full of small details, with an appeal that stretches beyond its historical setting to anyone who enjoys reading about characters and carefully drawn relationships.’
‘I won’t say any more about the plot for fear of ruining it, as there is a surprising twist half way through, but this is a truly wonderful novel that is unexpected in so many ways. There is much left unsaid, and unexplored; glimpses are given of the women’s pasts and their relationship with one another that can be interpreted as the reader wishes. Were Elsie and Rene lovers, or was their contentment grounded in the satisfaction of a deep platonic bond? There is plenty of evidence for both readings, and it is up to us to decide what we feel best fits their characters. The period details are marvellous, and the depictions of countryside life and the characters found there are beautifully and realistically drawn. It is a thoughtful, intriguing and unusual tale of two women who fought against social and moral expectations to live a life that gave them the fulfilment their hearts longed for, carrying the weight of guilt, sorrow and blame along with them as they navigated a path through the barriers that stood in their way. What makes it even more powerful is the knowledge that Rachel Malik based this tale on the story of her own grandmother’s life, which can be read here (warning – this article does provide plot spoilers).
It makes you wonder how many more extraordinary stories there are, hidden within families, buried beneath layers of shame and embarrassment. A few newspaper clippings and a clutch of certificates can hint at so much, and yet still tell so little. It’s made me want to go digging into my own family history once more, and I already want to read this remarkable novel all over again. I can’t wait to see what Rachel Malik will write next!’
Mac Adventures with Books http://mac-adventureswithbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/miss-boston-and-miss-hargreaves-rachel.html
I cannot tell you how much I loved and enjoyed this book. Rachel Malik’s maternal grandmother was the inspiration – a woman who left a husband and three children (one of whom was Malik’s mother) and just got on a train and never looked back. She (Miss Hargreaves) became a Land Girl, working on farms in WW2, and was sent to Starlight Farm, where she met her soulmate, Miss Boston. They ran the little farm together until they were cheated out of it by a lie from the farmer next door who was on the county committee for categorisation of food production on farms during the war. They became itinerant farm workers, travelling from one farm to another, working for their keep and a roof over their heads until the late 1950s, when they settled in a small rented cottage in Cornwall.
As Malik tells you in the Afterward, this is a work of fiction, although the two characters are based on real people and her research traces the lives of the two women. But fiction or not, this is simply a magical book, even though the women are not really great talkers, so conversation is not the high spot of the book. The descriptions of life in the countryside, and the walks they take and the adventures they have are just wonderful. You know that they care for each other deeply, even though they do not speak about “love” or “closeness”, they just are. It is only half way though the book that a real threat arrives to rock the boat, and the book then changes it’s tone. I found myself reading faster because I needed to know how this would end, but also putting the book down because I didn’t want it to end. This is currently only available in hardback or on kindle – Penguin please note that I do hope it comes out in paperback because it needs to be on that front table in Waterstones! (Although the cover does not really lead you in, so perhaps a change there).
Recommended – it will continue to haunt me long after I pass it on.
I won’t give any more of the plot away, other than to say, it turns into a murder/mystery – and very good too! I got so attached to the characters that I cried toward the ending….always a good sign of a good read!
Malik has extrapolated an elegant and deeply moving work of fiction…
That these characters are more than figments of the author’s imagination is evident throughout. Malik tells her story, her grandmother’s story, with a gentle touch. Where this book might have had a whiff of gossipy tell-all, instead it is bound by the warmth of a confidence reluctantly shared. Malik tells the story cautiously, only hinting at secrets, almost testing the reader to see if she can trust you, so that you lean forward, careful in your attention and keen to know more.
… Malik’s achievement is to have applauded the small rebellion of these women against the expectations of their time and place. She has redeemed these ‘curious’ women to normality. Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves celebrates the love, respect and loyalty at the core of their relationship.
While browsing the display tables and shelves of London’s bookshops, I was hoping to find another story like The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Not a replica of the characters, setting or plot, but something matching its tone of fresh mixed with nostalgia. Something well-written and atmospheric. When Rachel (Book Snob) mentioned she was reading Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, I asked her if it was good. Little did I know just how perfectly it would fit the bill.
The prologue reveals two characters, the first is a woman scanning the landscape through a cottage window. The second is a woman on the verge of freedom outside the gates of Holloway prison.
It would have been easy to sensationalize the story of Elsie Boston and Rene Hargreaves, but there is none of that here. It’s a beautiful story with a bite; a slow simmer that turns into something of a boil. And to learn that it’s based in reality adds to the fascination – Rene Hargreaves is the author’s grandmother.
It is hard to write a review of a book I loved as much as I loved this one, a part of me just wants to tell you to buy it immediately. I haven’t read many novels published this year and this was an impulse buy, when it arrived I decided I wanted to read it right away.
Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is Rachel Malik’s debut novel, and it is a hugely impressive beginning to what I can only suppose will be a very successful publishing career. The story is based heavily on the life of the author’s maternal grandmother; Rene Hargreaves. While the author makes it quite clear that this is a work of fiction, she kept the names the same and all the incidents in the book seem to have come straight from Rene’s life – and it is a wonderful story spanning more than twenty years….
There is a night time expedition to the White Horse carved into the hillside, covered with turf because of the war the pair uncover it walk down the hill to gaze at it and walk back up to cover it back up, they laugh and swap confidences. Soon the two women can’t imagine a life a part. Rene is warm and sociable, has a great love of cinema, and slowly she begins to change Elsie, helping her overcome her almost crippling shyness.
Together they endure sadness and hardship; a conniving neighbour helps the Ministry for Agricultural take Starlight from Elsie, so he can get his hands on the land – there is nothing they can do. Determined to work the land they love and stay together; the pair become itinerant farm workers and move from farm to farm across the country – starting in Cumbria and ending in Cornwall in the late 1950s. It is a hard life – they no longer have the comfort of their wireless, though they do get to live in a series of tiny farm cottages, dividing the household tasks between them. Sometimes Rene has to work away at other farms, looking forward to Friday evening when she comes home. This though is nothing to the battles that lie ahead of them.
As they begin to think of settling for good at Wheal Rock in a small Cornish community, with a dog a cat and a wireless, part of Rene’s past arrives, threatening their way of life – and much more. Their lives will be turned upside down, held up for examination by the media, and subject to a high-profile court case.
“At dusk though, the exterior began to change: the chimney smoke wreathed and twisted against the darkening sky, the rickety extensions turned opaque and the dishevelled garden grew blurry and indistinct. By the time it was dark and the lamps glowed orange in the windows, the cottage seemed invulnerable. Rene loved returning when it was dark, her first sight of the lights through the trees as she cycled up the lane. Coming home: Elsie in the kitchen window, standing at the sink, washing, waiting. Sometimes it felt to Rene as if they would always live at Wheal Rock; it was foolish, but sometimes she couldn’t help herself.”
What I particularly loved about this book was how strongly rooted in the British countryside it is, showing a fierce love and understanding for the countryside and the lives lived by agricultural workers. The relationship between Elsie and Rene is sensitively and delicately portrayed – we never know exactly how far their relationship progressed, whether they in fact were lovers – it doesn’t matter at all – their commitment to their shared way of life is what is important.
To think, that this incredible story was hidden away inside Rachel Malik’s family history, waiting for her to discover it. What an exciting discovery it must have been, and how lucky we are that she chose to share it in this way. (Oh, and the cover art for this hardback edition is just perfect).