The House at Silvermoor by Tracy Rees: An exquisitely written, hard-hitting and powerfully emotional tale of family, friendship, love, loss, cruelty and kindness - book review -

The House at Silvermoor
The House at Silvermoor

In the spring of 1898, 12-year-old Josie Westgate accepted that, as a miner’s daughter, she will one day be a miner’s wife but everything changes when she meets 12-year-old Tommy Green from the neighbouring pit village.

Raised in small villages at the heart of South Yorkshire’s tough mining country, Tommy Green and Josie Westgate are destined to be a pair of star cross’d friends.

Born on opposite sides of rival pit communities, the two young people have always been marked out to live, marry and work by rules and traditions that were laid down decades ago… but it’s the dawn of the 20th century and changes lie ahead that will break down class barriers and turn expectations on their head.

Welsh author Tracy Rees – whose debut novel Amy Snow won the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller Competition in 2015 – is acclaimed for her acutely perceptive and compassionate writing, and her fifth book sets the seal on her reputation as an accomplished and imaginative historical novelist.

Inspired by the experiences of her own collier grandfather, Rees brings us an exquisitely written, hard-hitting and powerfully emotional tale of family, friendship, love, loss, cruelty and kindness set against the privations, inequalities, social struggles and sometimes blind prejudices of tight-knit mining communities.

In the spring of 1898, 12-year-old Josie Westgate has never questioned her life in the South Yorkshire mining village of Arden. She has always accepted that, as a miner’s daughter, she will one day be a miner’s wife and her home will always be in Arden.

But everything changes when she meets 12-year-old Tommy Green from the neighbouring pit village of Grindley. Tommy, who has been destined for a life working underground since the moment he was born, has far more ambitious dreams for his future and gives Josie ‘the gifts of questions and dreaming and laughter.’

By far the cleverest boy at the village school, Tommy wants to leave Grindley, meet people who talk of things other than mining, and find rooms that are filled with books. But his schoolmaster warns him, in no uncertain terms, that ‘the world’s realms and reaches are not for the likes of you.’

United by their desire for something better and by their fascination with the local gentry, Josie and Tommy become firm friends even though their families would frown on their relationship as they come from different communities and work for different mine owners.

Tommy’s family are employed by the wealthy and glamorous Sedgewicks of Silvermoor who inhabit a world that is utterly forbidden to Tommy and Josie, but have always proved to be fair and philanthropic employers.

Meanwhile, Josie’s father and brothers work for the Barridges, a family that ‘work their men harder than dogs’ and once lived in the grand mansion, Heston Manor, which they closed up and left chained and unlived in when their eldest son and heir died in a riding accident.

As an escape from their grim lives, Tommy and Josie have found a way to sneak into the grounds of deserted Heston Manor between their two villages, but there are dangers at the big house, and when they discover that its mysteries aren’t all in the past, the pair become entangled with two the wealthy families and their lives change forever...

With hidden secrets simmering at its heart, The House at Silvermoor is a penetrating exploration of corrosive class divisions, the gritty, brutal and claustrophobic realities of working in a coal mine, the stubborn loyalties that can divide families, and the breakdown of age-old traditions.

The bitter struggles of Josie and Tommy to shake off the expectations of their communities, and to dare to dream of a life beyond the confines of hearth, home and pit, inevitably come at a price, and their ambitions are too often thwarted by cruelty, dogma and suffering.

But, with a narrative that alternates between the two young people, we witness the gentle blossoming of both their precious friendship and their daring ambitions, and observe how they become the symbols of a new era of social change that will erode old beliefs, and challenge the strict lines between classes.

Immaculately researched and with rich historical detail woven into its delicate threads, this is a moving and thoroughly entertaining tale steeped in romance, mystery and drama, and delivers storytelling at its elegant and descriptive best.

(Quercus, hardback, £20.99)