Published by Penguin
Publication date – 1 February 2018 (paperback)
Source – review copy
One day in 1940 Rene Hargreaves walks out on her family and the city to take a position as a Land Girl at the remote Starlight farm. There she will live with and help lonely farmer Elsie Boston.
At first Elsie and Rene are unsure of one another – strangers from different worlds. But over time they each come to depend on the other. They become inseparable.
Until the day a visitor from Rene’s past arrives and their careful, secluded life is thrown into confusion. Suddenly, all they have built together is threatened. What will they do to protect themselves? And are they prepared for the consequences?
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Elsie Boston is not keen on opening up her farm and her life to a stranger. But a Land Girl is coming to Starlight farm to help Elsie during the war. Little does Elsie realise that Rene Hargreaves will change her life irrevocably.
There is a gentleness to the story, one that allows the reader to be pulled along with the story. Time passes by swiftly, so much so that months or years can pass in a single chapter. This speeding up of time means that the story has a slight surreal quality to it. One minute Rene Hargreaves has arrived at Starlight Farm, the war in full swing, then the next the war is over, though it seems that Rene is still only the new girl.
The relationship between Rene and Elise is hinted at, discreet suggestions dropped in chapters to show how their relationship develops from strangers, to friends, to something deeper and more life-altering.
Elise is portrayed as a simpler, quieter soul, one who would prefer to be left alone with her animals and work, and later with Rene. Though not a people person she is well liked by those she knows. She is somewhat coddled by Rene, who prepares them for any moves they have to make, organising and sorting so that Elsie is not worried. However it does appear that Elsie has an inner strength and drive that doesn’t always have the opportunity to make its presence felt. It almost felt as if Elsie was from another age at times. Rene is a more complex character. Arriving at Starlight with her own secrets, her past is slowly revealed. I have to admit as much as I warmed to Rene as the book progressed, for she a determined, kind, hardworking woman, the fact that she left her family always cast a shadow over her, and made me unable to like her as much as I wanted to.
The story is engaging. During the first half of the novel not much happens yet everything happens. We see Rene and Elsie meet, become friends, become inseparable. We see them go through winters and summers, through personal trials and through the everyday mundane aspects of life. The book is well written, the prose at times almost poetic, with a cadence that lulls the reader. The second part of the novel is more matter of fact, with a tone that is both different and recognisable.
Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is loosely based on the life of Rachel Malik’s maternal grandmother which made the story all the more fascinating for me. I found myself carrying out internet research after I had finished the book, keen to see if I could find out anything about the real Miss Hargreaves.
Don’t pick up this book if you want lots of action and adventure. Do try it if you want a gently told tale that takes you away to another time and place, and that works its magic on you slowly.
About the author
Rachel Malik was born in London in 1965 of mixed English and Pakistani parentage. She studied English at Cambridge and Linguistics at Strathclyde. For many years, Rachel taught English Literature at Middlesex University. Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is her first novel.