The story heads to a convent in Ireland for ‘fallen’ women

It’s easy to be snooty about Kathryn Hughes’ simplistic writing style. Whether it’s the ‘I can see them coming in advance’ plot twists, the easy to read narrative or the unlikely dialogue in which the characters spill out their stories in such detail they run more like essays, there’s no denying the craftsmanship of her plot lines. And that’s her skill as she interweave the lives of her characters through time and unlikely coincidences, plus the good v evil themes in which good women triumph over bad men. They are the reasons why The Letter is a best seller. It’s a paired down story with the minimum of description, not too many pages and cliff hangers at the end of each chapter.

Set in 1970s Manchester the novel features the life of the wife of a bus conductor

The story of two women 30 years apart linked by an unposted letter also reflects social attitudes and prejudices to sex before marriage, parental control and religious bigotry in the 1930s and 1970s in the UK. We meet hostile nuns, obstreperous librarians, a drunken husband and bigoted men, while on the other hand the story takes in helpful old ladies, a kindly betting shop manager and concerned office colleagues. A supporting cast are saints or villains – two dimensional maybe but helpful to keep the plot ticking over.

In her matter of fact style Kathryn Hughes makes the reader want to grab some of those characters and shake some common sense into them such is their blindness to their actions. Which of course is part of her winning technique otherwise the story would end rather early.

For those of a certain age the sections set during the 1970s have an almost nostalgic feel with its power cuts, electric bar heaters and only three channels on the TV. And an era when charity shops were filled with classic suits, retro dresses and army great coats beloved by students – all for a few pence. From pre-war Britain to a post war world before the internet and mobile phones make searches for lost relatives so much easier compared to the restrictions of the era of James Callaghan and Edward Heath of British Leyland and Ford Capris in which the story is set.

An Irish farm in the 1940s is the setting for part of the story

The main protagonist Tina begins a journey in distance and character maturing along the way as she discovers more to life than her abusive husband and her office job. A sort of modern fairy tale like those American Christmas films on Channel 5 in which you know roughly what may happen but the way the story unfolds keeps you hooked to the happy ever after finale.

Harry Mottram

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