My second read for Mary Hocking reading week was Checkmate first published in 1969. A novel with fascinating complex characters, mystery and a superb sense of place I was gripped by it immediately. Several of Mary Hocking’s later novels explore issues of mental illness – and in the portrayal of one particularly disturbing character in Checkmate – we see what can result from years of jealously, fear and disappointment.
“The wind raided the French windows. There was something imperious about it, as though someone was demanding entry and would not be long denied. Catherine sat very straight in the middle of the couch; her head was still as though held in a vice, but her eyes looked round the room, expecting something to happen, hoping to forestall it. She looked at the antimacassar on the back of the winged armchair; it was a fine example of tatting and had a swan as centrepiece. She had never examined it carefully before, although it was so familiar; the swan had an exceedingly long neck, she was not sure whether it had always been as long as that. She switched her gaze sharply to the mantelpiece. Sure enough, the heavy serpentine clock had moved nearer to the edge. The wind buffeted the windows in a surge of frustration. Catherine looked at the angel which swirled above the clock, the angel was blowing a trumpet the end of which had been broken off. She was not sure how long the trumpet had been broken. Grit fell in the hearth and a little soot puffed into the room. She clenched her hands; they should have had the chimney bricked up long ago. Then, behind her, something clattered down.”
Polwithian, Cornwall is the setting for this complex, romantic thriller – a village where strangers stand out a mile. Huddled along a muddy estuary, it is well off the tourist tack. The Jory family have been living on their farm – which stands apart from the rest of the village – for decades. A strange, reserved family – they keep themselves to themselves. Silas Jory isn’t a farmer however – he’s a solicitor’s clerk – and twenty years earlier he had shocked the community when he returned from the war with a Syrian wife.
“In 1948 Melita Jory ran away with a stranger and was not heard of again. Her mother-in-law went into mourning. Rhoda Penryn said that she did this because she liked black; it was certain she had never liked Melita.”
It is eighteen years since Melita went away; leaving her young daughter Anna behind, Anna a young woman now, still lives at the farm, which has no electricity – with her father, grandmother and Catherine, her father’s troubled cousin.
As the novel opens a stranger arrives in Polwithian – with questions about the Jory’s and Melita in particular. His presence serves to rake up old stories, unearthing secrets and rousing passions, jealousies and violence.
Gabriel – the minister’s awkward son is friends with Anna Jory – they walk together while Gabriel tells her about the birds he sees. Gabriel; an unhappy young boy is not impressed with the stranger – his only welcome is to push him into the wall of the jetty, telling him sharply to leave. Gabriel Harkness will later watch jealously as Anna and the stranger begin to draw closer. Who is this man? Richard Oliver – at first he claims to be representing lawyers acting for Melita’s family.
As Richard begins to become a more familiar figure in the village, the locals start to ask questions about what happened to Melita. Did she go away with someone – or did she leave on her own? Rhoda finds it hard to believe that Melita would have left Anna – convinced she would have returned for her child had she been able. Rumour about Mr Harkness – the minister rise to the surface again – he’d been instructing Melita in Christianity at the time she disappeared. Is Richard’s interest in Anna entirely appropriate?
“The birds no longer had the scene to themselves. A girls was sitting on the rock that jutted furthest out; she sat with her legs curled under her body, contemplating the sea, as much in her element as the oystercatcher on the adjacent rock. She came often, probably every morning, he was sure of that; she was so much a part of the scene. He wondered how she had got there. While he was thinking about this he realised that he was in no doubt about her identity. How she had got there might be a mystery, but he was quite certain whence she had come. He found himself unexpectedly moved by this knowledge. She had been so completely overlooked: they had spoked of Silas, of old Mrs Jory and Catherine, reluctantly they had remembered Melita, nut no one had thought to mention Anna Jory.”
Memories of Melita haunt Silas – and Catherine’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic as Richard manages to manoeuvre his way into staying at the Jory farm – where everyone goes to bed at eight o’clock and the nights are very long and dark.
There is tension and mystery in this novel, it reminded me a little of Look stranger – another Mary Hocking novel which portrays a community living somewhat apart from the rest of society. The reader is not certain who to trust in this novel – relationships are complex – often uncomfortable.
Richard Oliver – the stranger – as often strangers do in literature – brings change to this quiet community. Eighteen years of memories and suspicions are brought to the surface, before the truths are finally revealed. There is both subtlety and tension in this novel which make it a really good page turner.