Book review: Coming Home to Island House by Erica James

Can a wealthy businessman unite his estranged family from beyond the grave'¦ or will his warring children simply drift apart forever?

Thursday, 11th January 2018, 8:57 am
Updated Thursday, 11th January 2018, 9:00 am
Coming Home to Island House by Erica James
Coming Home to Island House by Erica James

Erica James, author of beautiful, bestselling novels like Summer at the Lake and Song of the Skylark, casts her piercing gaze over a dysfunctional family in an enchanting new saga set on the cusp of wartime.

James – a perceptive and thoughtful writer – excels at bringing us the triumphs and disasters of family relationships and this warm, wise and compelling story packs a powerful emotional punch.

Star of the show is Romily Temple-Devereux, a young, dynamic woman who thrives on adventure but is thrust unexpectedly into a difficult domestic role that will test her diplomacy, her determination and her resilience.

After touring an unsettled Europe to promote her latest book in the summer of 1939, author Romily returns home to the picturesque Island House in the quintessentially English village of Melstead St Mary in Suffolk.

Village gossips have nicknamed her wealthy widower Jack Devereux’s ‘scarlet woman’ but what they don’t know is that Jack and Romily have secretly married after a whirlwind romance. Even though 60-year-old Jack is 27 years her senior, the charismatic diamond trader is the love of Romily’s life.

But when Jack dies suddenly, his estranged children are called home and, under the terms of his will, must live together at Island House for seven days and find a way to bury their resentments or they will all lose their inheritance.

The family has become increasingly disjointed since Jack’s first wife died back in 1915 and he abandoned the care of his children to a series of nannies. Jack’s last hope was that his children would put the past to rest in a way that they couldn’t while he was still alive.

Eldest son Arthur, an arrogant, rude and hostile man who seems to have ‘a stone where his heart should be,’ will be the hardest nut to crack. Then there is Kit, the sickly child who has grown into a man beset by feelings of inadequacy and now pinning his hopes of finding glory on wartime heroics.

Daughter Hope, cruelly widowed after a short marriage to her German husband Dieter, has returned home with a young Jewish girl whose parents have been forced to send her to England for safety. Embittered and isolated, Hope has never forgiven her father for refusing to bless her marriage to a German.

And then there is Allegra, the fiery half-Italian daughter of Jack’s brother. An aspiring opera singer in Italy, Allegra was orphaned as a baby and later adopted by Jack but she has always resented the cousins who never let her forget that she was illegitimate.

So, with war now declared, and Romily in charge of reuniting the siblings, each member of the family is reluctantly forced to accept their new stepmother and confront their own shortcomings. But can the habits of a lifetime be changed in just one week, and will any truce last the course?

James fields an intriguing cast of characters, from the irresistibly vivacious Romily and the pouting prima donna Allegra to the shy, diffident Kit and the boorish, brutish Arthur. As their stories play out in both the past and the present, we come to understand their fears and insecurities, and the events that have shaped their lives and their perceptions of each other.

The imminence of war and the consequent harsh realities of the conflict at both home and abroad add extra poignancy and resonance to an absorbing story that explores the ups and downs of family life with James’ trademark empathy and wisdom.

Coming Home to Island House is ultimately one family’s painful journey of self-discovery. There is regret, recrimination, suspicion, despair and heartbreak, but there is also forgiveness, reconciliation, hope… and love.

A fascinating, feelgood story that cannot help but woo James’ army of dedicated fans.

(Orion, hardback, £16.99)