Book Review: The Heart Beats in Secret by Katie Munnik

Book - The Heart Beats in Secret by Katie MunnikThis is a quiet, beautiful novel which stretches across time, rooted, to begin with, in an open, wild Scottish landscape on the North East coast. It follows the lives of three women. First there is Jane, newly married and learning to survive small-town life alone, with her husband away, fighting in the Second World War. She seeks refuge in walks along the shore, but is unable to escape the harsh brutality of war, or to defend herself against the local gossips, forced to do everything she can to protect the man she loves.   

Years later, her daughter (Felicity) seeks adventure and excitement, travelling to Canada to work as a nurse in Montreal, and then moving to a rural commune to give birth, unmarried but unafraid. She has grown up feeling a certain sense of mystery at home, of things unsaid, and seems to find refuge at the camp, surrounded by the natural world. She eventually settles there, finding friendship with those who have experienced loss themselves, making it her home.

But the book begins with Felicity’s daughter, Pidge, who returns to Scotland when she inherits her grandmother’s house, only to discover that she has inherited more than she expected – a wild goose seems to have taken over the house, and refuses to leave. Pidge is caught in a kind of limbo, between her life in Canada, and the pull of the present, and a sense of mystery, a desire to understand her mother’s past. She must also decide what to do about the goose, who might, after all, simply be looking for a friend:

As soon as I was out the door of the house, I spotted the goose – or rather, it spotted me. This time, it was up on a tall stump halfway down the path. I’d have to pass right by it. It looked at me and let out an almighty squawk, beating its wings in the air. I froze. Do geese attack? Bas told stories about geese guarding farmhouses in the Netherlands. Said they were loud enough beasts to frighten any intruders, all hissing and strong wings. Geese protect their flock. But would a solitary bird be fierce like that, I wondered…

This is not a page turner, but a literary novel which takes its time, so that, as I read, I felt like I was really getting to know the characters, beginning to understand them.

It is interesting, having read the book, to flick back at the earlier pages, and re-read them in the light of what comes after – one of those books where everything changes, and yet everything stays the same. The stories come solidly one after another – first Pidge (in the present) followed by Jane (during the Second World War) and finally we hear Felicity’s story (in the 1960s), reverting back to the present again, for a last chapter with Pidge.

This is one of those books that lingers in your mind, that makes you want to go out to the coast and feel the wind in your hair, and then come back, all cosy and warm and safe. The landscapes of North East Scotland and rural Quebec are vividly described, and the characters feel real, like people you might meet. I was sorry to finish the book, and may re-read it again soon.

You can buy The Heart Beats in Secret here.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher.

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