Title: The Sea Gate
Author: Jane Johnson
Published: September 2nd 2020
Publisher: Head of Zeus – GB
Genres: Fiction, General
Rating: 5 stars
One house, two women, a lifetime of secrets… Following the death of her mother, Becky begins the sad task of sorting through her empty flat. Starting with the letters piling up on the doormat, she finds an envelope post-marked from Cornwall. In it is a letter that will change her life forever. A desperate plea from her mother’s elderly cousin, Olivia, to help save her beloved home. Becky arrives at Chynalls to find the beautiful old house crumbling into the ground, and Olivia stuck in hospital with no hope of being discharged until her home is made habitable. Though daunted by the enormity of the task, Becky sets to work. But as she peels back the layers of paint, plaster and grime, she uncovers secrets buried for more than seventy years. Secrets from a time when Olivia was young, the Second World War was raging, and danger and romance lurked round every corner… The Sea Gate is a sweeping, spellbinding novel about the lives of two very different women, and the secrets that bind them together.
‘I wash my hands in the scullery, wiping my hands dry on a tea towel, and dash out of the front door, through the debris of the collapsed porch and down the steps, and across the narrow track where the taxi dropped me the previous day – and yes, there it is! Strangled by weeds and brambles, but tantalizingly present, a little wooden gate, its paint flaking charmingly.’
The Sea Gate is the latest release from British editor and novelist Jane Johnson. A sweeping story that is defined by a immersive dual timeline, The Sea Gate regales a story of love, family, secrets, mystery, forbidden acts, desire, history and suspense.
The present day we meet Becky, a woman currently experiencing a crisis in her relationship, career and family life. Becky is also grieving her mother’s recent death. Becky is tidying her late mother’s affairs when she comes across a letter from Cornwall which her mother had not attended to prior to her death. When Becky opens this letter she is confronted with a call for help, from her mother’s cousin in Cornwall, asking for some assistance in helping her to retain her much loved seaside manor. Becky is compelled to take a trip to Cornwall and help her mother’s elderly cousin. When she arrives, Becky is shocked to find cousin Olivia’s once grand home Chynalls in a state of disrepair. With Olivia too ill to oversee a much needed overhaul of Chynalls, it is up to Becky to ensure that Chynalls doesn’t fall into complete disrepair. As Becky takes on the task of patching up Chynalls for Olivia while she is hospital, Becky encounters some startling family secrets from the past. This leads Becky into the past where we learn more the life Olivia led as a young woman during the Second World War. The Sea Gate offers up its secrets and hidden mysteries, unveiling a rich tale of war, sacrifice, passion and peril.
I have not encountered Jane Johnson’s writing before. However, I am a big fan of the dual timeline past to present style narratives made famous by authors such as Kate Morton. I was very pleased to be introduced to an unfamiliar author in this genre. I am going to make a concerted effort to seek out more of Jane Johnson’s novels based on my appreciation of this writer’s style. The Sea Gate is magical, mesmerising, hypnotic and alluring. I couldn’t take my eyes of this one from the opening to the conclusion. It was a stunning novel!
The beauty in The Sea Gate rests in the setting. Deeply atmospheric and reflective of the rich location in which it is set, The Sea Gate offers a wonderful tribute to Cornwall. The past and present timelines both clearly illuminate this setting base extremely well. In fact, I was reminded of a trip I made as a young girl of just eleven to the Smugglers Cove area while reading this book. If you are a fan of great writers such as Daphne Du Maurier you will appreciate all The Sea Gate has to offer. Highly atmospheric and vividly drawn, it was a pleasure to read the rolling descriptions of this picturesque British location.
Linked to the highly detailed location base is the crumbling estate of Chynalls, which is home to the central character of this novel in both timelines, Olivia. It is impossible to ignore Chynalls, it is full of character, depth and plenty of dark secrets. There are plenty of skeletons in the closet for the reader to uncover with present day character Becky as a guide. I really connected to Chynalls, it has such great page presence. I also loved how there were so many underlying hidden truths to unlock as the book progressed. The Sea Gate offers a deeply engaging reading experience.
In terms of the characterisation, I couldn’t fault Jane Johnson. Cousin Olivia is depicted clearly and unscrupulously. We see this woman warts and all. Olivia has a good and bad side which we witness as the book plods along on its meaningful journey. I loved getting to know Olivia in the present day as a woman reflecting back on her colourful life, along with her past as a young girl blossoming into an adult under the shadow of war. Olivia’s sojourn is offset by Becky’s quest in the present day to overcome her various life, relationship, career and family issues. Although I found Becky’s story to be slightly less compelling than Olivia’s, Becky’s contribution to the narrative is a must, as it sets the ball rolling in terms of our time travel back to the past. The supporting cast is well rendered by the author, providing the reader with a mix of villains, friends, foes and lovers. The cast were a joy to be acquainted with.
The Second World War sequences in The Sea Gate are well versed, displaying the author’s depth of understanding of how the war impacted this region of Britain. From the prisoners of war confined to this part of the country, to the restrictions on life, the dangerous threats of invasion, rations and the extra work conducted by everyday women on the land was fascinating. Johnson builds a convincing recreation of wartime life in Cornwall. Connected to this aspect of the story is a forbidden style romance that flourishes in the past sequences. My heart definitely skipped a few beats while I was reading this segment of the story, it was both touching and sad. Johnson’s novel is definitely a slow burn style saga, but I really appreciated the pace of The Sea Gate. The novel builds nicely to a conclusion which is defined by some last minute surprising revelations.
The Sea Gate presents stunning lyric to Cornish life, the war, complicated love, family secrets, mysteries and intrigue. Jane Johnson’s new novel deserves a big round of applause, I loved it.
The Sea Gate by Jane Johnson was published on 2nd September 2020 by Head of Zeus – GB. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of The Sea Gate, Jane Johnson, visit here.
*Thanks extended to Harper Collins Books Australia for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.