A Half Forgotten Song, by Katherine Webb

Review published on January 2, 2013. Reviewed by Marleen Kennedy

Zach Gilchrist’s life is falling apart around his ears. His ex-wife is moving from England to America and taking their six year old daughter with her, his art gallery is failing and he can’t bring himself to sell the three pictures he has that might actually save his business. The three pictures are all by the same painter: Charles Aubrey. A painter whose life was cut short by the Second World War and whose last few months alive were shrouded in mystery. A painter who may or may not have links to Zach’s own family. When Zach is reminded of the book about Aubrey he is supposed to be writing he decides to travel to Blacknowle on the Dorset coast, the place where Aubrey spent the last three summers of his life with his mistress and their two daughters; Blacknowle where the answer to all Zach’s questions about Aubrey’s life and death may lie.

Mitzy Hatcher has lived in Blacknowle all her life. She once went on a foreign trip but that was in 1938, when she was sixteen. Since then she hasn’t left the village where she was born and spent a miserable childhood with her mother – the gypsy who never showed her any love or affection – and surrounded by people who didn’t accept her. Happiness did visit Mitzy’s life once. When she was fourteen Charles Aubrey arrived in Blacknowle for the summer with his beautiful mistress and their two daughters. Mitzy soon becomes fast friends with Aubrey’s eldest daughter as well as a regular figure in his drawings and his family’s life. Over the course of three years Mitzy’s love for this family that accepts her just as she is, turns into something else, an obsession with the famous artist. And it is this obsession that will lead to an unspeakable act with devastating consequences and secrets that will stay hidden for almost seventy-five years. Secrets that are threatened by the arrival in Blacknowle of a very determined and curious man. And she is not the only one in the village staying quiet about certain things.

This was a fascinating story and not one that is easily categorized. Between the covers of “A Half Forgotten Song” we find a mystery, several love stories as well as ghosts, obsession and betrayal. Both the story and the way in which it is told reminded me a bit of the books by Kate Morton. Both authors present their main character and readers with a mystery, the answer to which lies buried in the past and is well guarded by those who could resolve it. And both Morton and Webb know how to surprise the reader. Just when you think you know the answer to all the questions, they manage to shock you with a revelation you never saw coming.

All these aspects make this an intriguing story and a gripping read. The tension in the story is slowly build up, almost imperceptibly, until it reaches the stage where putting the book down becomes an impossibility because the need to find out exactly what is going on has gotten too strong.

The characters in this book are vivid and multi-dimensional. Katherine Webb’s characters are not either good or bad. While it is easy to like some characters more then others there are no purely hateful or completely blameless players here, which makes the story all the more interesting. Having said that, I found it very hard to sympathise with Mitzy to the same extent that the characters in this book do. Despite her horrific childhood and other circumstances that might explain or excuse her behaviour I still felt she should and could have done better and I really didn’t understand the ease with which other characters in the story were able to forgive her. But that is the only less than completely positive comment I can make about this book.

Overall I would call this a fascinating and engrossing novel; a page-turner that will keep the reader enthralled.

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