Book Review: On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

I seem to be continuing my entirely unplanned literary trip back to the landscape of my youth. This time we are on the Lincolnshire the coast Chapel St Leonard’s in fact, just along the way from Skegness and all it’s seaside paraphernalia.

It is the setting of the beautifully crafted On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, published by Chatto and Windus. It is the telling of a family history, moreover it is the telling of a family mystery, one that has remained in the shadows for many years.

Before I start I need to say that I nearly didn’t review this book.

Not because I didn’t enjoy it. I was utterly entranced. The story captivated me in that special way that only true stories can, as I listened to my constant inner voice repeating ‘My God, this actually happened…’

I hesitated about reviewing because I was worried that I would give something away.

For this is a story that needs to discovered. Piece by piece, layer by layer, just as the author and her family have uncovered, assessed and redefined their truth. I knew I needed to tread lightly.

So in terms of ‘plot’, ( and using the word plot feels wrong when you are dealing with someone’s life !) I will give you the merest hint. Just enough to whet your appetite, but trust me this is a feast waiting to be discovered.

The story begins in 1929, a young girl Betty is playing in the warm autumn sunshine on Chapel beach. She is 3 years old. Her mother, Veda, is sitting near by. Her father, George, a travelling salesman is away from home.

In the blink of eye she is gone.


Betty is missing for 5 days. She is finally discovered unharmed, dressed in new clothes, in a house a few miles away.

Restored to her family, Betty’s life continues and, although the ‘kidnap’ is common knowledge within the tight knit community, it is never discussed.

But the reasons behind it and the effects it has on this family will define not only this but generations to come.

And so begins the telling of a complex tale. A tale that is told with remarkable skill and originality. At no point does the reader feel lost in the tangle of truths. There is a structure and fluidity to the retelling which drives the tale onwards, not withstanding it’s many twists, turns, even dead ends that appear along the way.

This is a unique family story and it needs to be told in a unique way. Laura Cumming harnesses all her skills as an art critic, systematically analysing family photographs taken through out her mother’s childhood, almost exclusively by her Grandfather George.

These photographs are the chronicle of her family, and Cumming assesses each one, looking to discover the subject’s intent and their emotion. Timelines, settings, clothing and scribbled captions are all scrutinised to build a picture of her mother; her childhood, her beginnings and the very essence of identity.

Throughout there is that familiar feeling of trying to make sense of the past. The way we all grasp at the scraps others have left behind. The way we try to fill in the gaps with ancestors thoughts, feelings and motivations. Cumming and her mother are trying to join the dots on a masterpiece, and it is a process that will take the whole of the book.

Art is a constant ribbon running through the fabric of these words. Beyond the carefully crafted photographs of George, both Laura’s parents were artists, she herself has made her life in artistic circles. Art in this book is a mirror and sometimes a magnifying glass, offering escape, clarity and a whole new perspective on an intriguing and sometimes painful puzzle.

Cumming’s voice throughout is one of intelligence and integrity. Her love for her mother seeps from the pages and yet she allows others in this story their voice. One of the most poignant elements of her work is the fact that the perspective and viewpoints we encounter are not static. In true art critic style we are encouraged to throw off our preconceptions and look at this from all angles.

And the story and it’s conclusion are all the better for this.

I have no doubt that this book will stay me for a long time. For anyone who has ever looked back at their own family story and wished for a second of clarity, for anyone who has unanswered questions, quite possibly lost to the mists of time, this book will hold a special charm.

See you on the sands.