“In a land where the sky is king, the weather announces itself hours in advance; the fields, ditches and dykes have a Mondrian‑like geometry, that repeats itself with utter predictability as far as the horizon; and you can see anyone approaching for miles.”
It is rare, in fact so far unheard of, that I start a review with a quote from the book in question. However this quote sums up so perfectly how I remember the Fens of my childhood it was an obvious place for me to begin.
Fiona Neill has hit upon the very openness of the landscape and the huge brooding skies; skies that reached the ground, skirting fields of wheat and barley for mile upon mile. Unlike the rugged Lakeland landscape I now call home The Fens are not beautiful in the traditional sense, but they have a unique quality and one which for me is ever present.
It is this unique quality which Fiona Neill has been so accomplished at embedding into her novel. It is a quiet delight to find a novel with such a strong sense of place, a sense of place which not only grounds the novel but is central to it’s key themes and motivation.
For The Fenland that Neill writes about is seeped in history and that history is cleverly interwoven into the lives of the characters.
Patrick, husband and Art History teacher, is the descended from the Dutch pioneers who drained the land, reclaiming it from the sea.
Mia, younger daughter; eccentric, creative and straight talking, becomes fascinated, some might say obsessed by the Anglo Saxon burials recently uncovered. They offer a glimpse into the past but they also indirectly threaten the future. Tas, Mia’s traveller friend, is likely to lose his site in order to preserve this newly discovered and important site.
The past, seeping through to the present, is a theme running through the very veins of this novel. For when Lilly, fated older daughter and A grade student collapses at school, her parents Grace and Patrick are thrown into a world of turmoil.
Grace has spend years constructing the perfect life for both her girls. The product of a chaotic and abusive childhood, Grace clings to normality and the concrete. Navigating her life with her notebook of Certainties she has suppressed the most traumatic event in order that her girls may thrive. But just like the rising marshland water that is infecting their new home, the more Grace fights her past, the more it threatens her present. Her need for boundaries is ingrained, but what happens when those boundaries stop being healthy and become a cage?
The story is testament to the fact that the past runs through all of us. Deny it and it will find a way to make it’s self known. Neill shows the reader that by suppressing the past we are giving it a momentum of it’s own.
Yet secrets within this novel are not confined to just the past. Here we find a compelling portrait of a family coping with both collective and individual problems . No one person is telling the truth. Each is keeping close watch over their own and indeed other people’s secrets, in a misguided bid to protect the family as a unit.
Lilly, for example, has created a double life; dutiful and driven daughter, competing for a coveted University place, verses young woman experiencing love, sex and deceit for the first time. When the pressure of this charade becomes to much the fallout affects not just Lilly and her family but the wider and surrounding community.
This novel is held together by tight family bonds. The theme of siblings and their unique relationships runs deep. They are a source of tension, humour and unexpected revelations, which once again underline the connections between past and present.
Neill has created a cast of characters that are authentic and believable. Their motivations, however misguided never seem outlandish, such is the skill with which they are drawn. It is a mark of Neill’s accomplishment as an author that the reader finds their sympathies continually shifting throughout the novel.
Should you want to take a trip to the open Fenland landscape the Beneath the Surface is an excellent place to start and one I would recommend.
Huge thanks go to Penguin Random House for sending me a digital copy in exchange for an honest review.