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Susan’s Bookshelves: Windmill Hill by Lucy Atkins

Astrid is an elderly actress who hasn’t worked for decades but has played the National and the RSC in big roles. Today she lives, with a woman she usually calls Mrs Baker and three dogs, in a draughty cottage attached to a delapidated Sussex windmill. There is no money for anything much and certainly none to rectify the windmill’s disrepair. Somehow they struggle on from day to day. The evocatively sensuous writing means that you can hear the creak of the timbers, smell the dogs, see the smoke billowing out of the elderly car which can’t be trusted to go more than short distances and taste the simple food and drink which practical Mrs Baker practically conjures from scant resources. There’s eccentricity too – how about a stuffed stoat they call Tony Blair?

Now, having recently been visited by a pleasant young writer named Nina, Astrid – who hasn’t travelled for a very long time – decides, against Mrs Baker’s wishes and sensible advice, to travel to Scotland to confront her ex-husband. He’s a world famous actor now dying of cancer and we quickly realise that forty five years ago he treated Astrid very badly and wrecked her career. The details of what happened – a truly appalling incident – are skilfully and tantalisingly drip-fed before we finally learn the details.

But this novel is like a three strand plait because there are two other main narratives. First, who is Mrs Baker and what has happened to her in the past? She too has suffered at the hands of a man whose name is casually mentioned many times and an unmentionable “appalling incident” carefully put in a corner of Astrid’s brain where it can be ignored. The novel is written in the third person but the narrative point of view is mainly Astrid’s. She and Mrs Baker live in a sort of intimate, bickering, very fond and caring sorority but they are not, contrary to the opinion of villagers, a sexual couple. So how did she and Astrid become a household?

The third strand in the plait is the history of the windmill which has a personality all of its own. It was bought after the first war by a woman in defiance of her husband who has gone to America on business and prefers – ahem – male company. Astrid, who thought of writing a book but lacks the tenacity, has their letters and they form part of the narrative. Astrid, of course, identifies with Constance.

Thus there are a lot of flashbacks in this intriguing, compelling novel but Atkins handles them with immaculate clarity. It’s moving, original, full of strongly drawn characters and well worth spending a few hours with.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: We all want impossible things by Catherine Newman  

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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