A hidden stash of telegrams and old letters sets Sam Cooper off on a transatlantic journey to see the crumbling family home and meet the infirm grandmother her mother never even mentioned while she was alive, only for her to discover that much darker family skeletons have also been kept hidden away.
Winter 1954, and in a dilapidated apartment in Brooklyn, Sam Cooper realises that she has nothing left. Her mother is dead, she has no prospects, and she cannot afford the rent. But as she goes through her mother’s things, Sam finds a stack of hidden letters that reveal a family and an inheritance that she never knew she had, three thousand miles away in Yorkshire.
Begars Abbey is a crumbling pile, inhabited only by Lady Cooper, Sam’s ailing grandmother, and a handful of servants. Sam cannot understand why her mother kept its very existence a secret, but her newly discovered diaries offer a glimpse of a young girl growing increasingly terrified. As is Sam herself.
Built on the foundations of an old convent, Begars moves and sings with the biting wind. Her grandmother cannot speak, and a shadowy woman moves along the corridors at night. There are dark places in the hidden tunnels beneath Begars. And they will not give up their secrets easily…
I almost immediately warmed to the novel’s protagonist, Sam Cooper. She’s a lost soul, struggling to survive, and yet, she remains open and kind, as well as brave and resolute. When we meet her in early December 1953, she’s still living in the walk-up apartment in Brooklyn where she lived with her mother but things are not going so well for her since her mother’s death earlier that year. Desperate and nearly destitute, she rifles through their meagre furnishings and possessions in the hope of finding some spare change or something she can convert into cash.
What she finds instead is a bundle of telegrams and old letters between her mother, Vera, and an English law firm, with reference to a grandmother Sam never heard her mother mention. This discovery will take her on a journey from New York to a decrepit manor house just outside its older namesake city of York in the northeast of England. (I appreciated Vera’s decision to swap old York for New York when deciding where to escape to and found it very fitting and almost poetic.) Sam’s woefully ill-prepared for the sea crossing, and in particular for the company on board ship, let alone the lacklustre reception she receives upon arrival but she doesn’t shy away from her main purpose and never contemplates giving up on it and running home, even when others suggest she do just that.
Begars Abbey is suitably gothic and V L Valentine makes good use of its unusual features and legacy elements. It’s a rambling old manor house which has seen better days and was converted from its former use as a priory before being added to by subsequent owners and upgraded to an Abbey. There are windows of disparate shapes and sizes, heavy oak doors hidden behind tapestries, dark corners where shadows seem to lurk or shift shape, damp bedrooms, and draughty hallways along which strange noises travel during the night. Sam arrives there during a snowstorm and, with the wind howling about the house, it almost seems to be wailing in pain or warning her off it as no place to linger.
As Sam delves into the Abbey’s secrets and her mother’s life there, she unearths a puzzling maze of tantalising leads and frustrating dead ends with little in the way of help or comfort from the few housemates she has, perhaps with the exception of Alec. But even he is evasive and unwilling to answer too many questions about the past. He’s solicitous enough for her well-being in his older brother’s absence but almost obstructive when it comes to Begars Abbey. His older brother, Roger Bell, the lawyer she was corresponding with and the man who was meant to meet her, has disappeared. Which leaves only the housekeeper, Mrs Pritchett—and if Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca taught us anything, it’s to be wary of the housekeeper—her invalid grandmother, Lady Cooper, who is of scant use to her, her grandmother’s nurse, Nesta, and Ivy, the maid. These last three are all fascinating character studies.
It’s a small cast of characters but one which V L Valentine makes excellent use of to keep her story moving forward, providing Sam and the reader with sufficient interactions and titbits to keep us intrigued and make Sam determined to get to the bottom of the family secrets. Not only does she need to understand why Vera chose to run so far away but also why she kept her family background so completely hidden from Sam, when it was Sam’s family, as well.
Happily, Sam is pretty resourceful and has a good track record of discovering her mother’s hiding places, something which serves her well during her stay at Begars Abbey. It’s also good that she’s not someone who is easily discouraged or frightened. There are secrets within secrets here and, while some are less surprising than others, things get pretty dark and twisted here. (I also liked that V L Valentine kept some surprises back and these delivered a real punch when they were revealed.) The skeletons might not be in the closet at Begars Abbey—they’re covered in cobwebs and slightly harder to find than that—but once Sam makes her grim discovery, she’ll also quickly learn the shocking truth behind them.
Begars Abbey is a deliciously unsavoury slice of gothic set in a dark and rambling hall of long-buried secrets: it’s a toxic family story of money and influence, desire, jealousy and power, filled with the ghosts of its past. Begars Abbey lets slip its secrets through old letters and diaries, in whispers of silk and the brief shimmer of sequins, the tuning notes of a violin, the strangled cries of an old woman and carries them along on the draughts throughout this old, neglected house. Pick it up and let Begars Abbey whisper them to you. I can only recommend it to you.
Begars Abbey by V. L. Valentine is published by Viper, part of Serpent’s Tail, an imprint of Profile Books Ltd. It is available as an ebook and in hardback from 28 April 2022. You can find it at Amazon UK (affiliate link), Bookshop.org (affiliate link), Hive or Waterstones. You can follow the author who is on Twitter.
My thanks to Angana Narula at the publisher for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.
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