At The Water's Edge by Sara Gruen

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At The Water's Edge by Sara Gruen

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Another beautifully told, unmissable read from Water for Elephants Sara Gruen as a search for the Loch Ness monster during WWII turns into a search for safety and self.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: May 2015
Publisher: Two Roads
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1473604704

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An indiscretion at a party causes Ellis Hyde's parents to disown him, coming, as it does, hot on the heels of his father not understanding why Ellis has been turned down for war service. To prove he's not a coward, Ellis, his new wife Maddie and best friend Hank leave the US for Scotland. He's determined they will succeed where Ellis' father failed years before: they will find the Loch Ness monster. Maddie isn't as convinced but then she also thinks she knows Ellis. She and the locals at the inn where they're stranded by the global conflict will discover a lot more about him, and indeed themselves.

Canadian author Sara Gruen has had her work translated into 43 languages. That's an impressive number but unsurprising when you consider one of her offerings was the extremely successful book (and indeed film) Water for Elephants. This time out Sara stays within the borders of historical fiction but leaves the animal-exhibiting circuses behind in favour of a circus that produced the American elites' pseudo-class system of the 1930s and 40s.

Indeed this is the cloth from which Ellis, Hank and, to a lesser degree, Maddie are all cut. The difference of degree causes problems as we see when their pasts are gradually revealed by our narrator – Maddie herself.

The unexpected explosions arise from the three spoilt Americans ransplanted among Scots in the wild countryside surrounding Loch Ness. The US have only recently joined the war whereas the UK has suffered a while. Add this to each of the inn staff's personal background of adversity and/or pain and Hank and Ellis' air of entitlement and superiority and... No, their stay doesn't go down too well and Ellis especially is on the hateful side of not nice.

The adventure is a bit of a slow burner but as the story unfolds intertwined with stories from the front and news snippets from the era (each in accordance with what the everyday person of that time would know) we warm to Maddie. When it comes to personal pain and a history of suffering... I shan't spoil it but watch out for that that 'want to hug a character' feeling! (She's not the only one on my hug list either!)

Sara keeps the wonderful sense of time and place by showing us the cultural attitudes and ideas that are cringeworthy when at their most harmless but... Beauty is your duty... from barmaid Meg is the mildest. What's the other extreme? Wait till you see what they prescribe 'nerve pills' for and as for throwaway comments from a certain American doctor...!

Sara bewitches us with a melding of the war, Celtic superstition and myth (not to a fantasy extent though lest you're worried), cleverly layering diverse episodes that entrance and often surprise.

Should I have downgraded it from a 5* for the slow start? I did wrangle with that question but for me, once it all kicked in, it was still early enough to sink into the evocative atmospherics. Then, by the last page, I was blubbing and wanted to read it all over again immediately. That makes it a 5* from where I'm sitting.

(Thank you to the kind people of Two Roads for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If this appeals, we definitely recommend Ape House, the novel that came after the Elephants.

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