Hidden Lives by Judith Lennox (2018)

Whatever the differences between us, Edith”, Sadie Lawless had written at the end of her letter, “you are my sister.”

When I first saw the book in the store, I almost prayed to no one in particular that it had been published in 2018 so it would fit the requirements of the assignment to review it.

Maybe the reason I was surprised at first at how mundane the story seemed was that I placed so many expectations in it. I liked the book cover immensely: a young woman in a light blue silk dress lying across a wine-red sofa in what is clearly a fashionable manner, and a promising description on the back: I was convinced this book would take me on a spectacular journey to the 1930’s.

But then, the first three chapters were a rather bitter disappointment. A woman – Rose Martineau – in her late twenties, happily married with two daughters, living in London, regrets not having made anything of her physics degree and thus being forced into the ordinary life of a housewife. So far, nothing I haven’t encountered at least a dozen times; but then again, the main story is actually set in the 1970’s – I think a lot of women who were mothers at the time felt like they wanted more than cooking, cleaning and caring for their children.
But then, at the funeral of Rose’s grandmother Edith, Rose finds out she is to inherit her grandmother’s flat, a bit of money, and a house called ‘The Egg’ which Edith’s father had built in the 1920’s. Upon looking through the flat, Rose finds old letters from a woman called Sadie, who turns out to be Edith’s secret sister – and here it starts to get interesting.

Where I was first taken aback at how boring the beginning was, I was now unable to put the book down even for a few minutes. The story gained speed and tension, moving back and forth between Rose’s life in 1970, and her fight for independence in the aftermath of her husband’s infidelity, and Sadie Lawless’ life in 1930and her attempts  to make a living from her art after inheriting ‘The Egg’. The inheritence led to complications with her older sister – Edith wanted the house for herself. The sisters’ relationship seems unfixable, Edith is jealous of Sadie, who has always been prettier and their father’s favourite and Sadie isn’t able to bond with Edith.

After finding out about Sadie, Rose starts searching for her – traces she might have left on earth, clues about how she lived and felt out alone in the woods in ‘The Egg’, people she might have known. However, she has to stop soon as she feels like she is chasing a ghost, and decides instead to take on the aviation business of her cheating husband.

Moving out of the shared house, getting her girls into a new school and trying to save a failing company without any experience she does not think about her grandmother’s sister for almost a year.

Meanwhile, from 1930-34, we follow the path of Sadie as she befriends her neighbours Tom and Diana, a successful poet and his ambitious wife, one of whom becomes dangerously close to Sadie.

Attempting to broaden her mind and trying to get away from ‘The Egg’, Sadie starts to travel, first to France, then to Spain, where she works for a printmaker to support herself. She falls in love with a Spanish gentleman from an old aristocratic family, and starts to build a new life with him.

Sadie plans on leaving England and ‘The Egg’ for good after her second exhibition in London in October 1934, but never makes it back to Spain.

When Rose settles into her new life, she comes to investigate the mystery of Sadie Lawless again, finding that she disappeared in October 1934. She does not want to believe that Sadie might have wanted to leave no traces and just go back to Spain without giving a sign to a living soul, so Rose begins to look into Sadie’s life up until October 1934, and in doing so gets herself in grave danger.

The writing style is addictive, simple but full of subtle meanings that strike the reader forcefully with their profoundness. The constant switch between Rose’s reality and Sadie’s destiny is intriguing and fascinating and left me breathless with anticipation.

Lennox also manages to incorporate contemporary issues, like the feminist movement – not that surprising in the light of the main character’s struggles for independence and the lack of respect she receives from others – but powerful nonetheless: “A relationship ended and a woman was stalked in the streets, then strangled or beaten to death by the spurned boyfriend. […] They killed not for love, but for jealousy, possession and pride.”

I did not expect this book to be so good. My initial expectations – that Hidden Lives would contain mystery, interesting characters, and a certain amount of family drama – all came “true”, but there was so much more as well.
I am so glad I chose this book and did not stop reading it after the first sixty pages; I could easily have gone and got a different book but decided to give Judith Lennox’s most recent novel a second chance, and she did not disappoint.

What also surprised me: this is not Judith Lennox’s first novel. I was rather bewildered when I found out that the author, who was born in 1953, had written over twenty novels, the first one dating back to 1989. Why had I never heard of her before?

I ultimately made the decision to buy all of her other books, just to read more stories in her absorbing and enchanting writing style and encounter other realistic and ambiguous characters.

To anyone who may be indecisive about purchasing Hidden Lives, I can only say go for it. It is not only a good read, but a novel full of hidden secrets, lovers, truths, lies and in fact also of hidden lives.

Jule Viereck

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