Book Review: Susanna: The Early Years

Susanna: Volume 1 – The Early Years

(Book III in The Merencourt Saga)

by Carol Edgerley

B.R.A.G. Medallion-winning author

Download a FREE copy of Susanna: Volume 1 – The Early Years between November 10-14!

Available at Amazon and Amazon UK.

susannaWe were first introduced to author Carol Edgerley’s French side of the family via her great aunt, Marguerite de Merencourt, who lends her given name to the series’ first installment. Edgerley herself comes to this family history via clandestine story hours meant for her to improve her math grades, but thankfully her tutor aunt—a different one—gave in to her niece’s begging for family history and the result is the mesmerizing Merencourt Saga, of which Susanna is the third.

Despite being this far into the series Susanna could easily be read as a stand-alone, and if that were all any given reader wanted to dip their toes in, I would say don’t miss it. However, there is a richness in Susanna’s background, amazing tales of strong women, perseverance and a will to succeed that informs each generation. Marguerite and Claire bring us through these eras and we can see where Susanna gets the stoicism that carries her though the worst of times. Never to worry, however, dear readers, for anyone who starts first with number three will simply want to reach back and devour all the stories, much like Edgerley herself did as a child.

Marguerite de Merencourt was unwanted and disliked by her aristocratic mother, who with her favored son carried on a lifelong campaign against the girl, ultimately resulting in her banishment to an Irish convent school, followed by elopement and hasty relocation to British India. In an era when women existed in the shadows of the men they were connected to (fathers, husbnds), Marguerite’s life seems like payback for having made her own decisions. Ultimately she plans a way for herself, but the price she pays is steep.

Claire takes us to the next generation of Merencourt women, a journey through which we discover that dysfunction prefers to travel in packs, and no one seems spared from the misery of ambition, pride, righteousness and bigotry (in a variety of forms). The teenage Claire grows into a rather bitter woman whose lot in life is to deal with the overturn of almost every fortune she might ever receive. She throws it right back at the universe, not taking the time to think about those who stand in the way, and her behavior is at times very difficult to read.

claire
Claire is a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

So it may come as a surprise when this very same Claire opens Susanna’s story as the doting and affectionate grandmother, now living in France, who takes the sickly toddler into her home while the girl’s mother runs a school in the Himalayas. Diana’s occasional visits seem designed to disrupt any balance or security in Susanna’s life, for she comes with an irrational anger, blaming her daughter for the distance between them, lobbing accusations and subjecting her to violent abuse. Claire is mortified by this and pleads with Diana, who only reminds her of past transgressions and denies her any redemption, thereby absolving herself of the wrongs she too perpetuates.

Not long into Susanna the girl’s delight of her mother’s new baby is severely punished when she peers into the pram and the nanny reports to Diana that Susanna has attacked the infant.

I’m catching this wicked, BAD girl attacking Baby in her pram, Madam!” declared the nanny in outraged tones. So jealous she is, wanting to hurt our little baby. See how poor Samantha is crying!”

N … no! I didn’t hurt —”

 “Why, you vicious little brat!” Diana surged to her feet, scarlet in the face with fury. “I’ll teach you to attack a defenceless baby!”

 Seizing Susanna by the arm, she hoisted the shrieking child into the air and began to violently beat her. “See how you like that, you vile child!” Diana panted between wallops. “If I catch you anywhere near my baby again, you’ll get another thrashing.”

While Edgerley writes in the same style as in her previous novels, with a flair and grace that embodies a bygone time and its mannerisms, mores and standards, she also captures events in an economic style that tells all we need to know, reaching out to our hearts for this little girl while avoiding a literary sort of voyeurism that would threaten to lessen the story’s value.

marg
Opening novel in The Merencourt Saga series, Marguerite is also a winner of the indie B.R.A.G. Medallion

One of the novel’s greatest strengths is that as Susanna grows older, the narrative takes on deeper layers as we witness the ins and outs of Diana’s horrific projection and psychological abuse. Astounded at such cruelty, I found myself frequently asking, “But why? Why and how is this mother so cruel to her child in such a way that most of us would not inflict on a dog?”

A great part of the answer goes back to Marguerite; in the review for this book I mused on the perils of wasted talent and forced idleness in a society and era in which women’s mobility barely existed. While we in our age do not often dwell on it, movement in reality equals freedom, both of which Marguerite claims for herself in opposition to her parents’ plans for her. The hand of authority—again, back to the standards of the time—nevertheless reaches to her in India all the way from France, inflicting in other ways its harsh grip and affecting her relationships.

However, the die was cast. As I read Susanna I mused more on a conversation within the events of a popular reality/time experiment television series in which a family lives for three months, in every way possible, as would a typical household in Victorian England. One participant reflects the manner in which people of the era—particularly women—threw themselves into their projects and with sustained interest because the day’s enforced limitations resulted in boredom so severe it could drive individuals to madness. While Susanna is unfortunate in being confined within such parameters, she has inherited Marguerite’s imagination and drive, never willing to settle for dutifully giving in to the tasks and activities assigned to her.

The historical Claire, aged about 48, in France
The historical Claire, aged about 48, in France

Within this Edgerley reminds us that this is not mere knitting and fainting couch dwelling—not that this isn’t bad enough, though usually the sort of image we conjure when thinking of women’s lives in this time. As Susanna’s cognitive abilities sharpen with age, so too do Diana’s strategies for emotional manipulation and mental exploitation. Inserting herself into every corner of the girl’s life, Diana even makes use of casual conversation, constantly reconnoitering, the intelligence drawn from it utilized for offensive attacks. She forcefully employs Susanna in occupations that some then and now might find interesting, but are not where the girl’s heart resides. Humiliating Susanna with accusations terribly exaggerated or blatantly untrue, each turn of the screw brings her closer to the edge.

Acting in part almost as a psychological case study—sans the paucity of soul within institutional jargon—the author skillfully shows us the delicate balance her heroine is faced with: bestowed with the benefit of strength of character, the teenage Susanna must also confront the demon that plagues each generation as a cycle of abuse is passed from one to the next. Will her strong personality become a detriment as her ambitions are thwarted? Even if she does manage to break the horrific progression, will she be able to differentiate her actual desires from choices effected by spite?

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Susanna does have an ally in her grandmother Claire, and she engages in happy times in France and India, the author vividly portraying people, places and events in a manner so marvelously descriptive the passages come alive, though not only in image form: we feel the aura, hear the roar of the ocean’s waves, mingling of the people, mouths water at the platters of food as we stride through scenes.

Flora led the way through the house to a colonnaded terrace adjacent to the swimming pool area, where elegantly dressed people chatted together in groups. A band played popular music, and white-coated bearers, wearing the traditional muslin pugri, slowly circulated bearing canapés on silver trays. Garlands of fairy lights twinkling around the pool area added to the festive atmosphere.

 Words are subtly employed as actors to facilitate our engagement with the prose: hair tumbles defiantly about Susanna’s shoulders, Diana surges to her feet in anger and the heat seeps through the ground to our feet or the salt water sprinkles noses as we travel by sea. Hints of culture sprinkle themselves through the novel as Edgerley moves us between continents and years.

Readers ought not be tempted to see Susanna, smaller in appearance than its predecessors, as a book of lesser consequence. It is so readable one might find they have read quite a chunk as the time slipped by, though despite this ease of immersion the content’s dual layers of story and study captures our attention in totality. As The Early Years in the life of Susanna Lalinski, we can expect a part two, and I shall be anticipating it as much as I did each subsequent novel after I first read Marguerite. Readers should keep alert for it as well, and in the meantime, if they haven’t done already, reach back into a room where a young girl was meant to be practicing numbers, but instead begged a tale be told ….

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Carol Edgerley tells us in her own words a bit about her amazing life…

Born in Calcutta, Carol spent most of her early childhood in France and then Jersey in the Channel Islands. Educated first at a French convent, she then attended Jersey College for Girls and later went to Heathfield, a girls’ boarding school in Ascot.

carol-edgerleyThroughout her long life (and three marriages) Carol has travelled extensively, visiting the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, living several years in France, India and Hong Kong.

A qualified teacher, Carol ran a successful tutorial in Hong Kong for many years, teaching children French and English towards eventual O-Level examinations. She is delighted to still keep in touch with a number of ex-pupils.

Upon retirement to France, Carol was able to carry out a burning desire to write the story of her French great grandmother’s astonishing life, told to her by a great aunt when she was twelve years of age. In the delightful surroundings of her home in the Dordogne at that time, she wrote the story of Marguerite in long hand, initially for the benefit of her three children.

Years went by, and sweating blood and tears, Carol battled the mysteries of a computer, Mac, Word and email … finally Facebook and Twitter. Encouraged by friends and her three children, she re-invented herself as a writer and typed out the manuscript of Marguerite on her new Mac computer, editing furiously as she went. The exercise, however, took decidedly longer than she had imagined!

Unwilling to pursue a (generally) disappointing path to literary agents and publishers, being dismally aware her work might end up unread, and thrown on a “slush pile,” Carol ventured into the world of self publishing. It was one of her life’s greatest emotional moments to hold a print copy of Marguerite in her hands for the first time!

Delighted by readers’ response to the book, Carol went on to write Claire, the story of Marguerite’s wilful elder daughter, who led an amazing if somewhat tragic life. Now there is Susanna: The Early Years (Volume 1), this being the story of one of Claire’s granddaughters. This particular book shines a light on bullying in its worst form, an unpleasantness that unfortunately persists to this day.

Susanna: A Tale of Passion and Betrayal (Volume 2) will follow in due course.

Carol still lives in France, now in a comfortable old farmhouse set in the centre of its own twenty-eight acres of pastureland in the Vendée. Sitting at her desk in the veranda, she is invariably surrounded by six much-loved adopted dogs of all shapes and sizes.

Find and follow the wonderful Carol Edgerley at her blog, Twitter and Facebook.

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A gratis copy of Susanna: Volume 1 – The Early Years was provided to the blogger in order to facilitate an honest review.

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Images courtesy Carol Edgerley

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This post was updated to include links to free downloads (between November 10-14, 2016).

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