Since returning to school, I don’t have much free time to read fiction, so I was especially pleased to receive an advance review copy of the novel Ember Island (Touchstone Paperback / Simon & Schuster; Released April 15, 2014). Written by Australian novelist Kimberley Freeman, this work of historical fiction interweaves the lives of four non-conformist women in the late nineteenth century and modern day.
Ember Island’s co-protagonists Tilly Kirkland and Nina Jones may be separated by 100 years, but their lives share many similarities. Nina is a modern day, best-selling mystery author with a strong case of writer’s block. Under a deadline from her publisher that she can’t fulfill she retreats to a large manor house on Ember Island — off the coast of the Australian mainland — a house she has recently acquired that was previously inhabited by her great-grandmother, Eleanor Holt. During her stay, she uncovers old diary entries written by her grandmother during her early adolescence and meticulously hidden within the walls of the house.
Meanwhile, in 1891 Tilly Kirkland flees a tragic life in England and begins a new life as governess to the Ember Island prison warden’s daughter, Eleanor. Trying to make amends for past decisions, Tilly befriends one of the island’s few female prisoners, Hettie, who unbeknownst to all, shares a dark secret with Tilly.
While alternating between past and present, the pages of Ember Island pack in much drama, action, and romance, as Tilly and Nina struggle with actions and secrets that society would likely find immoral and unethical. The reader is guided in understanding their decisions, and left to make her own judgments.
This well-paced novel is full of plot twists and a bit of mystery. While Nina’s story didn’t do too much for me, I found Tilly’s to be especially exciting, and fortunately her story comprises most of the book. While I don’t want to give away any spoilers, I would recommend this book to fans of women’s fiction and historical fiction, and say that the book ends with an important moral: sometimes the truth — no matter how horrid it may seem — isn’t so bad after all.