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Book review: Rook, By Jane Rusbridge

Excavating buried pasts to soothe unhappy souls

The hidden history of the Bayeux Tapestry is just one of the many threads running through Jane Rusbridge's richly-imagined second novel. Although the action largely takes place in present-day Sussex, it's the past that dominates this poetic saga of familial battles, hidden bodies and vanquished love.

Nora, a professional cellist, has returned to her parents' home to recover from an unhappy love affair. The quiet tidal village of Bosham soon works its magic, although, as we learn, it wasn't always such a sleepy backwater. A thousand years earlier it was the place where King Canut's eight-year old daughter was said to have drowned and where, according to local legend, King Harold might also have been buried.

But it's history of another kind that consumes both Nora and her widowed mother. Much like her daughter, the now elderly Ada is prone to brooding on the romantic disappointments of the past, occasionally seized by feelings of guilt for her long dead husband. While Ada spends most of her time semi-blotto, Nora adopts a baby rook she discovers in a ditch.

Luckily for all involved, a young man unexpectedly arrives on the scene to lift the mood at Creek House. Jonny is a good-looking but self-serving filmmaker who wants to make a documentary about Bosham's intriguing Anglo-Saxon past. It's his determination to dig up the village church's so-called Godwin Tombs that unintentionally throws up revelations about Nora's shrouded past.

The novel's double time scheme is standard fare, but what marks out Rusbridge's novel is the passion with which she writes about her native Sussex and its more ancient landscapes. The “silted whisper” of Salthill Creek provides the book's atmospheric soundtrack, while you know exactly what the author means by the “mussel-fragrant air” of Bosham Church.

There are times when Rusbridge's multi-layered narrative can feel over-stretched, but as the tapestry makers of old might agree, a richly woven tale has its pleasures too.