SHORT & SWEET REVIEW: HESTER AND HARRIET BY HILARY SPIERS

Note, the format of my Short and Sweet reviews differs in that they simply comprise the book blurb and a short response (hence, the short and sweet).

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Don’t you love books that put a bright spark in your day? Hester and Harriet was one of those books for me – by turns charming, quirky, and laugh-out-loud funny. Here’s the blurb:

Hold on to your tea cups – you’re about to fall head over heels for Hester and Harriet, whose quiet and ordered Christmas celebrations are turned upside down with the arrival of their runaway teenage nephew and a young refugee woman and her baby.

When widowed sisters, Hester and Harriet, move together into a comfortable cottage in a pretty English village, the only blights on their cosy landscape are their crushingly boring cousins, George and Isabelle, who are determined that the sisters will never want for company. Including Christmas Day.

On their reluctant drive over to Christmas dinner, the sisters come across a waif-like young girl, hiding with her baby in a disused bus shelter. Seizing upon the perfect excuse for returning to their own warm hearth, Hester and Harriet insist on bringing Daria and Milo home with them. But with the knock at their front door the next day by a sinister stranger looking for a girl with a baby, followed quickly by their cousins’ churlish fifteen-year-old son, Ben, who also appears to be seeking sanctuary, Hester and Harriet’s carefully crafted peace and quiet quickly begins to fall apart.

With dark goings-on in the village, unlooked-for talents in Ben, and the deeper mysteries in Daria’s story, Hester and Harriet find their lives turned upside down. And, perhaps, it’s exactly what they need.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s one of those books where it’s evident the author enjoyed the writing process; Spiers plays with the language of the loveable and eccentric characters to make them stand out, rather than relying on description. From Ben’s lazy grammar to Daria’s stilted English, from Harriet and Hester’s proper (and sometimes quaint) turns of phrase to homeless classics master Finbar’s unexpectedly educated parlance, each one has a voice that is delightfully unique. This makes solving the where-did-Daria-come-from mystery all the more fun. Here are some samples:

 

Finbar: ‘Dear lady, you should have sent me word you were coming. I was simply answering a call of nature and returned to find what appeared to be an intruder. Another intruder,’ he added bitterly.
Harriet: ‘Goodness. Are you a policeman?’ says Harriet, knowing the answer.
Ben: ‘That’s the thing. She don’t know.’
Hester: ‘Christmas night?’ says Hester. ‘Donating things to Oxfam on Christmas night? How extraordinary.’
Daria: ‘My bag is stole at railway station … big boy, rough … I run after, but I am …’ She gestures to her stomach. ‘He get away.’

 

Rules are made to be broken, as Harriet says early on in the novel; this comment foreshadows the comedy of errors that follows when Hester and Harriet harbour an illegal immigrant. Indeed, Spiers uses the phrase to her advantage as a writer, jumping between Hester and Harriet’s thoughts in a manner that works surprisingly well. It’s a technique that is often cautioned against because not every writer can pull it off so well. I admire her for being one of the few who can.

 

Hester and Harriet draws together an unlikely cast of characters in a small English town and a mystery that goes in unexpected directions. It’s a gem of a book. It made me wish Hester and Harriet were my neighbours. I am sure they’d be good for many a laugh, not to mention good food and wine.

 

Available from good bookstores (RRP $29.99AUD). My copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.