The Heart Stone has all the characteristics that I’ve come to expect and love in novels from the Welsh independent publishers Honno. It’s the conspicuous sense of time and place that strikes you first, And then the depiction of a resilient and resourceful woman who has to fight for her right to live life on her own terms.
In Judith Barrow’s seventh and latest novel, the setting is the fictional Lancashire community of Nether Brook; the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else and no-one can keep their affairs secret for very long. It’s home to Jessie Jenkins, a sixteen-year-old girl adjusting to the recent death of her father and the realisation that she is in love with her childhood friend Arthur Dawson.
Her joy at this discovery is short lived. For Britain is now at war and Arthur, amidst a wave of patriotic fervour, has lied about his age and joined the Army. And her mother, fearful she can’t manage the family bakery alone, agrees to marry a man that Jessie despises and fears.
Over the course of the next four years while Arthur is off fighting in France, Jessie faces her own battles. Her stepfather’s behaviour becomes increasingly vicious towards her and her mother. She attracts the scorn of the community towards an unmarried mother. And she’s robbed of her inheritance of the bakery and shop. The Heart Stone follows the trials of this resourceful girl and her deep, abiding love for Arthur and the child he knows nothing about.
For fans of romance this would be a highly enjoyable read but my interests lay in another direction.
The strength of this novel lies really in the portrayal of women and their response to adversity. Though the focus of the narrative is on Jessie, we’re left under no illusion that her experience of domestic abuse and violence were common trials for women at this point in Britain’s history. So commonplace that other people in the community turned a blind eye.
With a large proportion of the healthy, fit male population off at the Front, women were left to manage on their own. Jessie’s mother finds the prospect alarming; she can’t cope without the support of a man. Arthur’s mother, Edna, is more than up to the challenge however, ignoring the community’s hostility to provide shelter for Jessie and her baby. And showing no fear in the face of bullying and violent tactics towards her surrogate daughter.
I loved the relationship that develops between Jessie and Edna, They laugh and cry and also argue, drawn together by their shared love of Arthur and fears he may not return. Jessie acts as a catalyst for change too with another older woman, bringing her out of her shadow and into the world. By the end of the novel, as peace is celebrated and soldiers begin returning home, there are signs that for some women, the future could be brighter.
The Heart Stone by Judith Barrow: Footnotes
Judith Barrow grew up in Yorkshire but has lived in rural Wales for more than 40 years. She is the author of seven novels which include a four-book series tracing generations of the Howarth family from 1911 up to the swinging 60s. Judith is also a creative writing tutor, running courses and workshops as well as offering one-to-one support. The Heart Stone is her seventh novel. It’s published by Honno in February 2021.
I received a copy of Judith’s novel from Honno in conjunction with RandomThingsTours in return for an honest review.