Secrets of the Pomegranate by Barbara Lamplugh

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Secrets of the Pomegranate by Barbara Lamplugh

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: In the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the secrets harboured by two English sisters, one of them settled in Granada, will come out into the open and affect the entire family. A strong debut novel. Barbara Lamplugh popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 264 Date: April 2015
Publisher: Silverwood Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781781323694

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Home in Bristol, Alice gets the news from her sister's partner, Paco. Her sister, Deborah Hardy, was on board one of the trains bombed at Madrid's Atocha station on 11 March. No one can yet confirm whether she is alive or dead. Deb had moved to Granada nearly 20 years ago, after her divorce from Mark's father, and was starting to make a name for herself as a scholar of women in Andalusia's history. Alice and her nine-year-old son Timmy fly to Spain to find that Deb is alive, but in a coma in hospital. Over the weeks she keeps vigil for Deb, Alice lives in her sister's home in Granada and reads her diaries, which proves to be a way of feeling closer to her and learning more about her than she ever knew. Meanwhile, Mark and Paco keep their distance, working through their complicated grief in their own ways.

The novel opens with a remarkable prologue, barely more than a page, that sees Deb and her friend Teresa rushing to catch a routine morning train. The first line is a wonderful piece of irony: 'They almost missed their train, the 'train of death' as it was later dubbed by the press.' The first five words seem to express annoyance and relief (and 'Deborah was to blame, of course'), but the rest of the sentence turns it on his head. If only Deb – and the 191 killed and 1800 wounded – had missed the train that particular day. In the prologue's last sentence, 'words ran out when an innocuous-looking rucksack in the centre of their carriage erupted, its contents ripping into flesh and bone, glass and steel with a mighty blast.'

All readers hear of Deb's actual voice is the handful of throwaway lines from that prologue; during the rest of the novel we get to know her purely through her diaries, spanning the 20 years of her new life in Spain. Irony again: in these written entries she seems so very alive. As Alice thinks, 'Deb's vitality, the spirit that came through in her diary was too poignant. What remained of that spirit now?' The answer to that rhetorical question is: plenty. Through her writing, we come to know Deb better even than we do Alice. In addition, there's her son Mark, who at 20 is sullen and mostly interested in drugs and girls, but still has traces of Deb's free-spiritedness, living in a cave (literally) and working on his drawings. And then there's her book, Bold and Free: Walladah and Other Liberated Women of Muslim Spain.

Deb's interest in Islamic history dates back ten years to her relationship with former partner Hassan. He was a moody, jealous Moroccan, macho in a way that denied her the right to be herself. They fought often and bitterly, but Deb's love for him encouraged her to support the local Muslim community in a mosque building campaign. Alas, Alice learns, Deb's activism made her unpopular amongst her neighbours. As Alice keeps reading, she is reminded of her own secrets and how they intersect with Deb's. Hassan, arrested for his supposed al-Qaeda links after 9/11, has just been released from prison and becomes connected to Deb's family for an entirely unexpected reason. Lamplugh does a great job of unveiling a little bit at a time – but still maintaining tension until the surprise of the final revelation. She also manages to keep readers in suspense throughout as to whether or not Deb will pull through her coma.

The novel shifts easily between the central narrative and Deb's diary entries, and between Alice's and Mark's perspectives. Getting into the mind of a rebellious, foul-mouthed young man is an especially notable achievement. Despite the serious subject matter, I found this to be a hopeful story overall. Alice may wonder 'Why did happiness always come with a built-in expiry date?' but the last words of Deb's diary advocate optimism: 'I must believe [Paco when he says Mark will settle down and find his way] and allow myself to be happy. Life is too short.' I can see this book appealing to fans of Jodi Picoult, Jojo Moyes, and Diane Chamberlain. It's a strong debut novel from Lamplugh.

Further reading suggestion: For more about the setting, we recommend Granada: The Light of Andalucia by Steven Nightingale. This novel would also lend itself to fans of Victoria Hislop's European-set fiction; you might try The Sunrise.

Bookinterviews.jpg Barbara Lamplugh was kind enough to be interviewed by Bookbag.

Booklists.jpg Secrets of the Pomegranate by Barbara Lamplugh is in the Top Ten Self-Published Books 2015.

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