REVIEW: EMBER ISLAND BY KIMBERLEY FREEMAN

Cover of Ember Island by Kimberley Freeman

EMBER ISLAND

Author: Kimberley Freeman
Hachette Australia RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

What a enjoyable and satisfying read! That’s how I felt when I closed Ember Island after barely being able to put it down. Old secrets, buried scandals, conflict and romance … all these usually add up to a great read in my book, and Kimberley Freeman had the storytelling down pat.

In 1891, Tilly leaves the safety and comfort of her late grandfather’s home in Dorset to join her new husband, Jasper Dellafore in the Channel Islands. Their short and sweet courtship was perfect timing for Tilly, a woman of limited means since her cousin will inherit her grandfather’s estate; now Tilly, her honeymoon delayed following her grandfather’s death, can’t wait to get to know her husband better. However, arriving at Jasper’s home she is dismayed to find that it is not the grand home she’s been led to believe. Nor is Jasper the man she thought he was – he doesn’t seem to want anything to do with her (apart from seeing if she has anything valuable to sell) and his behaviour is erratic and confusing. Soon Tilly doesn’t know whether Jasper is mad or she is … either way, her dream marriage has turned into a nightmare.

When she finally escapes, she makes her way across the world to Starwater House on Ember Island, taking up a post as a governess to the precocious Nell and hoping her secret past will not catch up with her. Ember Island is a prison island and Nell’s widowed father, Sterling Holt, is its stern superintendent. Attraction is inevitable, but at first Tilly has mixed feelings; she wants to get closer to him, but guilt always follows any shred of happiness she feels. Can she ever find happiness again?

“She had a disastrous marriage behind her, a horrific secret. Was it not wrong to allow Sterling to believe she was someone else, something else all together?”

In 2012, bestselling novelist Nina Jones, struggling with writer’s block and life in general, moves to Starwater, her house on Ember Island. The house, which once belonged to her grandmother Eleanor (Nell) Holt, has recently been damaged in a storm, and Nina decides to oversee its repair, reasoning that this temporary break will be good for her (and maybe cure her writer’s block). When she discovers pages of Nell’s diary in the walls of the old home, Nina becomes caught up in a mystery that links back to the days when Tilly was Nell’s governess. With the help of Joe, a marine biologist turned handyman, she learns that secrets never stay buried … and that includes her own.

I really enjoyed reading Ember Island. The dual narrative worked well and I found myself captivated to the end by the entwined secrets. I related more to Tilly’s story, probably because Jasper’s behaviour made me so cross. No, he made me angry. As I digested his actions and deceptions, I sensed Tilly’s confusion and helplessness, stranded on a physical island and isolated on an emotional island; the emotional abuse she experienced had me wanting to find out what happened to her and at first I didn’t want Nina’s story to interrupt it. Luckily, there wasn’t too much alternating between the narratives, but eventually I came to a point where I was happy to take a breather from Tilly’s story just to let go of the frustration I felt. I love it when writing evokes strong responses … do you?

The name Ember Island was well chosen, both as a location and a title. I liked the ember imagery that appeared in the book – embers of fire that took lives, ever-present embers of anger that flared up at inopportune and sometimes righteous moments (it’s in all of us), embers of attraction that both Tilly and Nina tried to resist. The island imagery was also well used – both Tilly and Nina retreat from the mainland, hoping their secrets/problems will not follow them – it’s a physical isolation, but even more so an emotional one. For Tilly, this emotional island imagery is most strongly drawn when she’s in the Channel Islands, although she experiences this again quite differently later on; it’s not something she wants though – she craves love and doesn’t want to be alone forever- it’s something that in both cases is forced on her by others. Nina is a little different. Smarting from a failed relationship, she creates her own emotional island, resisting her attraction to Joe and distancing herself from people who want something from her.

An engaging, well-crafted novel, Ember Island may be the first I’ve read by Kimberley Freeman (aka Kim Wilkins), but it won’t be the last. If you like books full of secrets and scandal, a good dose of romance, and characters you want to be friends with, put Ember Island on your to-read list.

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Hachette Australia. An author insight with Kimberley Freeman will appear tomorrow.

Bookish treat: Damper on a stick cooked over the embers of a fading fire, served with honey. Mmmm.