She thinks of blue mountain, her favourite place. ‘We’re going somewhere where we can be safe. We never have to come back here.’
As the rest of the world lies sleeping, Eleanor straps her infant daughter, Amy, into the back of her car. This is the moment she knew must come, when they will walk out on her husband Leon and a marriage in ruins since his return from Vietnam. Together, she and Amy will journey to blue mountain, a place of enchantment and refuge that lit up Eleanor’s childhood.
As the car eats up the miles, so Eleanor’s mind dives back into her fractured relationship with her mother, Kitty. Kitty who asked for so much from life, from love, from family. Kitty who had battled so hard to prise her husband George out of the grip of war. Kitty, whose disapproving voice rings so loud in Eleanor’s head.
Tense, visceral, glittering, it is a masterful return to fiction from the author of the acclaimed See What I Have Done.
I’m delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for Blue Hour, the second novel from Women’s Prize for Fiction longlisted author, Sarah Schmidt. This second novel is very different to her debut and while it doesn’t seem quite right to say that I enjoyed it given the subject matter, it’s a fantastic novel that delivers a terrific gut-punch.
Blue Hour starts with Eleanor packing a car with belongings and her baby daughter early one morning in a bid to escape her husband, Leon. Why this sneaking out and trying not to be seen is necessary isn’t fully apparent at first although it’s clear that Eleanor has been trapped in a difficult relationship particularly since her husband, Leon, returned from Vietnam. Eleanor is an interesting character, and one who I immediately sympathised with, both for her relationship with Leon but also the broader aspects of her life. A lover of nature, she wants nothing more than to study the birds that make up her PhD – something that she had to give up when she became a mother. As I got to know her, I felt that she is someone who tries to please those around her, even if it means going against her own wishes. This is particularly true of her mother, Kitty. She has – naturally – craved her mother’s love and attention from a young age, and yet this has rarely been forthcoming. It’s a behaviour that started at a young age as she sought her mother’s affection and has become so ingrained in her adult life that’s it a difficult habit to break.
The novel alternates between the lives of Eleanor and Kitty, providing insight into Eleanor’s childhood but also insight into her mother’s behaviour and that lack of affection. Kitty’s life hasn’t been plain sailing, and if she comes across as a cold and selfish woman at times, I did understand it to a degree even if I didn’t like her for it. She meets Eleanor’s father, George, shortly before he goes off to the Second World War, and while they write to each other for a time, their communications soon peter out. They meet again when George returns from the War, get married, and are happy for a time, although the passion soon withers as George’s injuries – physical and mental – continue to take their toll and as he struggles with what would today be described as PTSD. It’s a strain on their relationship, although Kitty’s generation is one that seems to have little choice but to grin and bear it.
Kitty’s relationship with Eleanor is strained to say the least. She wants to love her daughter and yet finds herself held back, unable to demonstrate the affection she wants to give and that she knows Eleanor needs and wants. She often says the wrong thing, in the wrong tone, and while Eleanor accepts any scrap of affection that is thrown her way, it’s clear that damage has been done, even if Eleanor doesn’t fully recognise the extent of it. Blue Hour gives a fascinating view of the sometimes difficult relationship between a mother and daughter, particularly where trauma, bereavement, and grief impose a barrier between two who are expected – without question – to love one another and to share a unique bond.
I think that Blue Hour is something of a testament to the futility of war and the devastating impact that this has both on those on the frontline but also on those who are left, often without support, to pick up the pieces afterwards. Both George and Leon are affected by their experiences – they participate in different wars, and their experiences differ, but both are changed irrevocably as a result. In this way Eleanor and Kitty’s lives have something in common as both women suffer, in different ways, in the aftermath without ever fully understanding what happened to their husbands yet still having to deal with it. In other relationships it might provide them with something to bond over, but Eleanor feels that she can’t reach out to anyone regarding her problems with Leon.
There is one other stark similarity between Kitty and Eleanor, and that is the distinct lack of options available to them as women in their respective generations. I have to admit that I was surprised that Eleanor – in the sixties – was studying for a PhD, although that perhaps says more about me than about the novel. What is less surprising is that she is – without consultation – expected to give this up upon becoming a mother and to do otherwise would be considered utterly selfish behaviour. Both Eleanor and Kitty are unhappy in their own ways, but there are few options available to either of them and Schmidt successfully captures the way in which both are expected to behave and to conform to societal norms. Even Kitty who – and if there’s anything I liked about her it’s this – seems relatively strong and forthright, feels trapped.
Blue Hour is a heart wrenching read that pulls you in and doesn’t let go until the last page. It’s not always an easy read given some of the subject matter, but it’s one that examines a less-explored complexity of mother-daughter relationships that may not always run smoothly. Recommended.
Blue Hour is published by Tinder Press and is available now in hardback, digital, and audio formats. Huge thanks to Emily Patience for the early review copy and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for the opportunity to take part in the blog tour.
Disclaimer – I received a copy of this novel from the publisher. This has in no way influenced my review.
About the Author
Sarah Schmidt is the acclaimed author of See What I Have Done, which was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and won the AIBA Literary Fiction of the Year 2018. She lives in Melbourne where she works as a librarian.
You can follow her at https://sarahschmidt.org/ and on Twitter @ikillnovel.
Make sure you check out the other wonderful bloggers taking part in the tour: