RogerBW's Blog

Thunder on the Right, Mary Stewart 18 May 2015

1957; mystery/thriller or romantic suspense. Jennifer Silver goes to the Pyrenées to visit her widowed cousin, who's staying in a convent and thinking about taking orders. But when she arrives, she finds her cousin has suddenly died and been buried. Or has she?

Gavarnie is a real place in the Pyrenées, a commune of 32 square miles with a population of 160 in the modern day, but I have no idea how authentically it's portrayed here. Mary Stewart regarded this as the weakest of her books, and (apart from some of the very late ones) I am inclined to agree. The situation is one that could potentially frame a great story: an essentially non-religious person visiting a convent, trying to work out what of the strangeness is just the convent's way of doing things and what might be genuinely sinister, but somehow it never quite develops.

This is romantic suspense, so there has to be a hero; Stephen Masefield was Jennifer's more-or-less boyfriend, sent away in haste when her overprotective mother realised what was going on. An interesting twist is that while Stephen is very much in love with Jennifer, she has regarded him as a good friend rather than as a potential lover, which necessarily restrains him even though he's come back to England and then on to France in order to put their relations on a firmer footing. But Stephen becomes in effect a home base: Jennifer goes to the convent, learns something that disturbs her, then comes back to Stephen to try to convince him that there's a problem.

There's a splendid villain in the person of Doña Francisca, the convent's treasurer who lays Jennifer's cousin's death on her with a minimum of sympathy, and a more ambiguous character in Pierre Bussac, the mountain guide. Both of them clearly have secrets, but just as clearly they have different goals, which may end up colliding.

But somehow things don't quite work; events often come over as just a little too contrived, even coincdental, and the action is strictly overblown – even, sadly, Jenny's realisation that Stephen is the one for her. There's a subplot involving one of the novices at the convent which is largely dispensable except to trigger the final confrontation, but the place is otherwise strangely bare of people (considering the way that monasteries and convents take great pains to make sure that one is never alone). An action sequence near the end just doesn't work (if you are crossing a high narrow bridge, having a rope held at the far end and tied round you isn't really going to make your life easier). It all feels a bit hasty and sketched-in. When someone casually admits to repeated rape of a person unable to give informed consent, and nobody seems to think this terribly important, I am forced to remember that things were indeed different in 1957. All the villains end up dead, but carefully not killed by the good guys: very neat.

That said there's still Stewart's lovely descriptive writing, the melodrama is powerful, and the plot mostly hangs together. I did enjoy it on this re-reading, but this book is probably only for the Stewart completist, which I am.

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