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Review: The Forgotten Letters Of Esther Durrant by Kayte Nunn

on June 17, 2019

The Forgotten Letters Of Esther Durrant
Kayte Nunn
Hachette AUS
2019, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

A cache of unsent love letters from the 1950s is found in a suitcase on a remote island in this mysterious love story by top ten bestselling author, Kayte Nunn.

1951. Esther Durrant, a young mother, is committed to an isolated mental asylum by her husband. Run by a pioneering psychiatrist, the hospital is at first Esther’s prison but soon becomes her refuge.

2017. Free-spirited marine scientist Rachel Parker embarks on a research posting in the Isles of Scilly, off the Cornish coast. When a violent storm forces her to take shelter on a far-flung island, she discovers a collection of hidden love letters. Captivated by their passion and tenderness, Rachel determines to track down the intended recipient.

Meanwhile, in London, Eve is helping her grandmother, a renowned mountaineer, write her memoirs. When she is contacted by Rachel, it sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to reveal secrets kept buried for more than sixty years.

The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant is a deeply atmospheric, resonant novel that charts the heart’s wild places, choices and consequences. If you love Elizabeth Gilbert and Kate Morton you will devour this book.

This book opens in such an intriguing way. Esther Durrant is a young wife and mother who has recently suffered a terrible loss. She’s been struggling to cope and her husband is apparently taking her on a holiday, leaving their young son behind in the care of others, so that Esther can find some sort of enjoyment again. Their destination seems somewhat suspect – a remote island in terrible weather, a huge mansion. Not really the relaxing and indulgent holiday that Esther was expecting. She astounded to wake the next morning, bound, in a strange room. Her husband has committed her here, to an experimental asylum. She will remain there for months, undergoing therapy and hopefully, learning to cope with the tragedy that has befallen her so that she can return to her family and mother her young son once more.

It wasn’t that long ago that men could commit their wives to mental asylums with relatively little difficulty and at first, I thought that this was what Esther’s husband was doing. Out of sight, out of mine. His intentions are ambiguous at first – dragging a grieving woman out in terrible weather to a remote island under the premise of a ‘holiday’. But there’s no denying that Esther is struggling mentally and needs some help in learning to cope with the terrible tragedy she has experienced. On the island, alone and feeling abandoned by those that should love her, Esther is at first somewhat reluctant and combative, preferring to sleep her time away. But eventually the island and its inhabitants intrigue her and she begins playing a part in the relatively experimental form of psychological evaluation.

Many years later Rachel Parker accepts a job researching marine species on islands off the Cornish coast. Rachel has lived a vagabond life, never staying too long in one place, always moving on to the next challenge and exciting location. This location is somewhat different to the tropical ones that she’s been used to – it’s a much more unforgiving environment than she’s used to but after an adjustment period, she finds herself drawn to one of the remote islands with an old gothic mansion, inhabited by a lone woman who shuns modern conveniences. Forced to stay there after losing her boat in a storm, Rachel finds a suitcase of abandoned clothing with love letters tucked inside, which sends her on a mission to reunite the letters with their intended recipient.

This book was amazing. From the first scene, where I was trying to figure out what had happened to Esther to grieve her so and what her husband’s true intentions were in leaving her on the island, to Rachel and her job. Some of Rachel’s earlier postings sounded like heaven on earth – atolls in the Pacific, living an endless life of summer and beaches. But there’s a serious side to her work, mapping the impact climate change is having by using certain species. I related to her initial feelings about the climate of her new home but Rachel adapts well, becoming a part of the local community and befriending a few of the locals. When she’s basically ‘shipwrecked’ and rescued by a woman living on her own, the mystery deepens with the discovery of letters from Esther’s time staying at Little Embers, the large mansion that was originally used as the hospice.

Esther was a woman in pain – all of the patients at Little Embers were experiencing great mental trauma. The others were men who had fought in the war and returned with PTSD and shock type traumas, which back in 1951, wasn’t particularly well understood. Esther slowly overcomes her resentment at being left there and begins to bond with the fellow patients and also their doctor as well, a kind and thoughtful man who just wants to be able to help people with his ideas and remote location, which helps focus the intensive therapy. The patients are encouraged to be out of doors, to walk and tend the garden, to take part in simple tasks that help keep the house running. Slowly she develops a special relationship with someone, the house becoming no longer somewhere she was abandoned, but a refuge, a place she feels safe and has given her happiness.

This book winds through two timelines – Esther’s ‘incarceration’ for want of a better term and Rachel’s discovery of the letters, which lead her to a woman named Eve living in London, helping her grandmother with her memoirs. Both of the timelines were amazing – I didn’t know what one I wanted to stay in more. I was so interested in Esther’s journey and how she would work through her grief but at the same time, Rachel’s job and exploration of the islands and her discovery of the letters as well as her journey to solve the mystery of writer/recipient kept me riveted too. The writing is so descriptive and wonderful that even though I’ve never left Australia, I could picture myself there, I could feel the sting of the salt and the ice of the wind and rain. The remoteness seemed so appealing as well, travelling by boat to these different islands and exploring a geography that’s totally different to what I’m used to. The characters were brilliantly rendered, the relationships and connections laid out with care.

This is two amazing stories wrapped up in one cohesive telling. I’ve really enjoyed Kayte Nunn’s last two books now and eagerly look forward to whatever else she has to offer in the future. Highly recommend it.


Book #89 of 2019

The Forgotten Letters Of Esther Durrant is book #40 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

7 responses to “Review: The Forgotten Letters Of Esther Durrant by Kayte Nunn

  1. I loved this one too! Beautiful review. 😊

  2. Good review, sounds like a good book.This one was already on my tbr list, but your review has me now really eager to read.

  3. […] The Forgotten Letters Of Esther Durrant by Kayte Nunn. My review. […]

  4. […] The Forgotten Letters Of Esther Durrant by Kayte Nunn. A brilliant dual timeline book about a young woman committed to a mental asylum by her husband in the 1950s after a loss and a woman in 2017 taking up a new career posting to a remote island off the coast of Cornwall. Incredibly engaging. My review. […]

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