Book Review: Arrowood by Laura McHugh

Hi Readers,

I hope you have all had a wonderful start to the year. I returned to work in January, after spending 15th ‘marvellous’ months on maternity leave with my daughter, Delilah. Returning to work in the first week brought on two emotions that seemed to clash. In one sense, I had felt sad to leave my baby and I had a fear of losing the close bond we’d created over the months. In another sense, I was looking forward to returning to my job as a data analyst, getting involved with spreadsheets, and of course, catching up with my wonderful colleagues. I had thought to myself that ‘time’ would be the only thing that could fuse together these two emotions into a ‘right’ – a normality. Five weeks on and my emotions and the daily routine are balancing out perfectly. Delilah has a beautiful mix of nursery and playing with other babies, being with me on a work-from-home Wednesday, and spending time with her Grandma. She has a variation of days in her life that will hopefully create a roundness, a confidence in her, and the vital life ability to be able to adapt to change. I am grateful every day of my life for the good that I have been given.

During the 15 months on maternity leave, I managed to read 12 books. These books were mostly quick-reads, which were perfect to fit around baby’s short naps. Since the start of my commute into London five weeks ago, I have returned to reading novels. A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading a fabulous gothic-mystery-crime book called Arrowood, by Laura McHugh. I must say, I read this book on my first day back and the plot and characters had helped to take my mind off of the sad emotions that I was feeling. Books can be a fantastic therapy, and a wonderful escape from reality for a while! I have written a review of the book ‘Arrowood’ below, and like all of my reviews, they are written from a writer’s perspective; I delve into the elements of writing that I see in a book, which I then note down to help me shape my own writing. Instead of giving a normal run-down of the plot, I take out elements, and these elements may contain spoilers. So if you want to read the book, then I’d advise you stop reading now. But do please come back to read it, as I would love to hear your thoughts!

Arrowood is the title of the book, the the surname of the protagonist, and the name of her childhood house (also the central setting of the book). Using this combination ties several of the major elements of writing together, and it gives them a strong connection. We don’t have to keep questioning the title of the book as we read, because it is embedded deeply in our minds from the very beginning. Arrowood – how can we forget it! The protagonist’s first name is Arden, which I found to be unique and memorable – the sound and echo of her first name really fused with the surname and title of the book. Arden Arrowood – what a fabulous name!

Arrowood is a stately home, which has been occupied by generations of Arrowood – whom are mentioned throughout the book. This gives us a sense of history and that all important ‘past, present, future’ that I believe all books should possess. The past generations that are spoken of in the book, bring a sense of age and a past ‘liveliness’ to the home (which is a contrast to the quietness of present). I tend to look for contrasts in all elements of novels, whether it be a contrast of characters, weather, dialogue, location, theme etc. They help to give that very important ‘lightness’ and ‘darkness’ that the reader must feel. As they say, the sweet isn’t as sweet without the sour.

In the present day, we see Arden return to her former childhood home of Arrowood. A perfect example of a winning story trigger, whereby a character ‘enters a new surrounding and endures a new goal and life’. Her and her family had left the house ten years previous, after a devasting family event had hit them; Arden’s two baby twin sisters had gone missing at Arrowood. In the present day we see Arden return in an attempt to find and relive the life she once knew. She has a yearning to reconnect with the twins, to find out what happened, and this inner yearning develops into passive detective work (when she meets and interacts with other characters and uncovers secrets along the way). I guess the goal grows stronger and stronger, and she and we then go on to find out what really happened to her sisters. This is what creates the page-turn – those burning questions that linger in our heads – what happened? Are they still alive? In general, I find books that pose big and clear questions are often the books I finish (even if those books are somewhat boring – Arrowood isn’t one of those). As writer’s, we must ensure that before we pose big questions to the reader, that we connect the reader with the character on an emotional level. The reader must care about them, or at least be intrigued by them, otherwise the question doesn’t have quite strong a hold on us.

In this book, and sometimes in life, we learn that versions of a story can be kept and modified through generations – until the truth is distorted entirely. This can be from different versions of a memory, and also applying a different aspect to an event. And with new evidence uncovered, the facts can affect the present day and the future. This is especially true of childhood memory, which is something that affects Arden. She has a clear memory of her Sisters going missing – but then her memory is questioned by another character which then leads to her question herself, and thus it changes the course and events of the story. This is a great plot trick – whereby the reader is ‘on course’ and feels safe in his or her knowledge of the situation. The reader may even feel clever at this stage – as they feel that what they know is enough to provide them with an answer or several anwers to the big questions. Then boom! The reader is shocked as they are showed a new revelation, and have to take a new path and direction entirely. Being a step ahead than the reader is a big challenge for a writer. We must discuss every possible angle and answer of a story so that the reader does not feel fooled – yet we must provide a shocking answer that is both viable and acceptable for the reader too. This can create the wow factor.

As mentioned, the book mixes past present and future, and it shows us how all of these elements shapes us as the people we are today. The key message is that none of us can ever truly live in the past or the future, and that only the present is certain. This very second. We can store memories but they can never be truly relived as we once knew them – as Arden discovers. We can only really hold on to scenes and fragments of them in our minds. Memories can sometimes be clear and sometimes be blurred. If you asked ten different people their version of the same event, chances are they will all be different. This will be due to the different workings of our minds and how we use and apply our senses.

Lies and secrets are also a very big theme in this book, and they are explored wonderfully through character and dialogue. A character holding something back can prompt that wonderful thing called conflict. This occurs with Arden and various characters in the book.

All in all, I absolutely loved this book. But along with all the good bits, I must pick out one element that annoyed me – one which tended to appear throughout the book. I found that Arden’s experience of the setting she was in at that time (how she reacted to weather, the objects she was seeing etc.) felt like it disturbed the flow of dialogue between her and other characters. There is an importance in letting the reader know the surroundings, but I felt that there was a type of written pattern forming in every section of dialogue – and that each time I spotted the pattern, I turned to skim-reading just those parts. Sometimes ‘setting description’ can be a beautiful thing, but when it feels like it is padded out it has a different touch entirely.

The themes of darkness, loneliness, mourning for the past, and loss were very powerful in this book, and I would consider this to be the author’s strongest skill. I would definitely recommend this book to mystery lovers, readers that love a dramatic-old-house at the forefront of a book and a good old ‘missing persons’ plot.

I hope that you enjoyed reading the review, and I do hope that I have provided some writing insight on what I consider to be a fabulous book.

Whilst I was writing this review, I also managed to read ‘Strangeland’, by Tracey Emin. At first, I thought it was going to give me an insight into her work as an artist, but it turned out to be a fabulously shocking biography – in ‘memory-diary’ format. I have written in my notebook to follow up with reading a book that is based on her work. If there is one in existence.

I am almost approaching the end of ‘Thin Line’ by Michelle Paver, which I will be reviewing in the coming weeks. It is a mountaineering/survival/ghost story – a plot that intrigued me.

I look foward to hearing your comments and thoughts.

Until next time,

Donna x

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Arrowood by Laura McHugh

  1. JC says:

    It’s good to hear that you and the family are doing well. And thanks for the book recommendation, I’m in need of something to read. Things are doing well over here, just trying to live in the moment… jc

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