Somewhere on an English marsh near the southern coast, an old woman is preparing for the end of her life. From our very first introduction to Virginia Wrathmell as she is waiting for a sign that its time to make her exit, the protagonist of Elizabeth Brooks’ disturbing The Orphan of Salt Winds*, we know that something is very wrong and that it has been wrong for a very long time. The rest of the book quickly unspools to reveal what Virginia has been hiding for more than eighty years and why she thinks she needs to walk out into the marsh for the last time.
Virginia was an unhappy orphan when she was adopted by Clem and Lorna Wrathmell. Her good luck at been adopted is severely tempered by her bad luck to be scooped up by a couple who think that maybe having a child will fix their relationship. Virginia, at age 11, is trust into the middle of an emotionally fraught household. The couple snipe at each other when they think Virginia can’t hear them. Still, Virginia bonds with Clem over the local birds and the marsh surrounding their house, Salt Winds.
If it hadn’t been for the German crash-landing out in the marsh and Virgina’s emotional immaturity, The Orphan of Salt Wind would have been a very different—possibly less harrowing—story. Without the crash and with less of Virginia’s terrible mistakes, Virginia and her adopted mother still have to contend with the lecherous Mr. Deering. Deering was a one-time suitor for Lorna and it appears that he still hasn’t gotten the message that Lorna can’t stand the sight of him. Deering is the kind of man that women fear. He’s so reasonable all the time that it’s hard for Lorna and Virginia to get him out of their lives. After all, how can they object to a nice picnic or his insistence that they welcome him when he drops by for a friendly cuppa? Even the little touches could be explained away. The ones that can’t weren’t witnessed by anyone. Who’s to say they even happened? Before long, I dreaded Deering’s arrivals at Salt Winds almost as much as Virginia or Lorna. Throwing a German pilot and an 11-year-old who has no idea how to deal with adults and it isn’t long before everything heads straight to emotional hell.
The Orphan of Salt Winds moves back and forth in time, from the early 1940s to 2015. We’re tangled up in Virginia’s past and present, drawn in to her twisted desire for a bit of revenge before she makes her exit from the world and into her long suppressed memories. Tangle is the right word for this book. It’s messily constructed and I don’t think that all of it makes sense. The ending is also a bit rushed. That said, this book is pitch perfect when it comes to harassment from a man who has plausible deniability (and possibly sociopathy) on his side.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.
For some reason, this book has a different title for the US edition. It’s original (and I think better) title is Call of the Curlew.