Book Title and Author: The Girl in the Letter by Emily Gunnis
Publication Date and Publisher: July 30, 2019 by Headline/Quercus USA
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 384 pages
Buy on Amazon.com
Date Read: August 2, 2019 (paper copy from the publisher)
Read her letter. Remember her story…
Gripping. Mesmerizing. Haunting. Heart-breaking. Once you’ve heard her story, you will never forget The Girl in the Letter.
Perfect for fans of Kate Morton, Rachel Hore and Kathryn Hughes, this page-turning, moving novel of separation and long-buried secrets will stay with you forever.
In the winter of 1956 pregnant young Ivy is sent in disgrace to St Margaret’s, a home for unmarried mothers in the south of England, run by nuns, to have her child. Her baby daughter is adopted. Ivy will never leave.
Sixty years later, journalist Samantha stumbles upon a series of letters from Ivy to her lover, pleading with him to rescue her from St Margaret’s before it is too late. As Sam pieces together Ivy’s tragic story, terrible secrets about St Margaret’s dark past begin to emerge. What happened to Ivy, to her baby, and to the hundreds of children born in the home? What links a number of mysterious, sudden deaths in the area? And why are those who once worked at St Margaret’s so keen that the truth should never be told? As Sam unpicks the sinister web of lies surrounding St Margaret’s, she also looks deep within – to confront some unwelcome truths of her own…
What an emotionally, harrowing novel! The Girl in the Letter was much darker than I expected and so, so sad but I very much enjoyed it. For me, knowing that it is based on historical facts, made the book all the more emotional, moving, and disturbing, especially since the facts are almost too horrific to think about! I honestly had no idea that there were mother and babies homes like this in the UK in the middle part of the 1900s (and after research of my own apparently ones run by the Salvation Army in the United States around the same time) and appreciate Emily Gunnis shining a light on the abuse, cruelty, and utter brutality in these homes in her debut novel.
The novel is told in dual timelines; it begins in 1959 at the St. Margaret’s Mother and Baby Home in Sussex with one of many heartbreakingly devastating letters by Ivy Jenkins that tell of the horrors suffered not only by her but of the other unwed mothers and children at the mercy of the nuns, doctors, and others at St. Margarets. Ivy is a young girl sent by her family to the mother/baby home only for the “sin” of becoming pregnant without a husband; the stigma of illegitimacy was too horrid for them to bear taking care of their daughter and grandchild. Instead, she’s been at the home for three years because she has to work to pay off the debt of her “care” while her baby has been forcefully taken away from her and put up for adoption.
In 2017, journalist Samantha Harper discovers the letters Ivy wrote while at St. Margaret’s, many of them addressed to the baby’s father begging him to rescue her from the daily abuse she sufferers and the last one addressed to a mysterious child named Elvira. Sam, looking for her big break, knows that there’s a huge story behind the letters, especially since St. Margaret’s is about to be demolished any day and there’s a link to a high profile celebrity if she can just figure out what it is. Sam is determined to find out the truth behind the letters and the more she digs, she finds mysterious deaths for everyone mentioned in the letters. Who is Ivy? Who is Elvira? And where are they now?
The letters in the novel are what really makes this such an emotional read. Sam, of course, is a brilliant character and her quest to bring justice for all the mothers subjected to the abuses at the hands of these nuns, who you would think would have been compassionate but were vile, evil, and abusive monsters, and bring some answers to the children given up for adoption was so admirable! But truly, the letters―they make you feel like you are right there with Ivy and experiencing what she does, and the fact that this is all historical accurate just makes it all too real! I cried reading several of them. I was four months pregnant when I married my husband, and I sat here and thought how blessed I was to have the support of my husband, family, and friends at the time because I just can’t imagine being pregnant, alone, and treated so inhumanely!
Definitely, this one is a hard read, but I believe historical fiction should educate us about the past and this one does. The author’s notes were very enlightening too and just showed how expertly this one was researched. I loved The Girl in the Letter and thought it a heartbreaking but beautiful debut. I highly recommend it if you enjoy historical fiction and eagerly await Gunnis’ next book!
**Thank you Headline/Quercus USA for the gifted copy. All opinions are my own.**