Way back in 2008 I wrote about a book on here which I had really enjoyed, Ferney by James Long. There was mention in comments of a sequel and at last that day has arrived, The Lives She Left Behind is published by Quercus this week. I haven't had time to read it yet but this seemed like a good day to dive back into the basement and bring that original Ferney post back to life, especially as, to my surprise, there really is a quote from me on the back cover of this new book...
So cast your mind back to 2008...
I'm not sure how I missed Ferney fever during the first epidemic but I've caught it good and proper this time round. Bit like chickenpox I suppose, which I didn't get until I was thirty-five, the older you are the more it affects you and perhaps the same could be said for Ferney which has definitely brought me out in a florid rash of enthusiasm.
Written by James Long, who I discover is also a Devon resident, the right chord is touched before I even begin the book because it's located in Somerset and there's something about Somerset that gives a book a head start with me. Black Dirt by Nell Leyshon, The Various by Steve Augarde, and my favourite art book of all time (since the last favourite art book of all time) John Caple's beautifully simple but symbolicSomerset. John's raw and naive yet highly imaginative artwork basks in this magical and slightly extraordinary setting which has cast my spell in gold for ever. Don't ask me to try to pin it down or analyse it because I can't, perhaps it's because Somerset is the first county we enter as we drive out of Devon and that first landmark, the much-loved Willow Man, our Angel of the West. Then we cross King's Sedgemoor Drain, you'd barely know but for the sign saying so, but we are in the Somerset Levels.
So thanks to all that, and James Long's meticulous writing, Ferney and I somehow bonded very quickly, and I was rapidly installed in this book as Mike and Gally move to their derelict Somerset cottage with a history they couldn't possibly know of but somehow local wise man Ferney does. Mike the historian, logical evidence-based thinker, scholarly and scientific in his approach and not one to let his imagination play any part in the history he writes and lectures on. Gally quite the opposite, slightly ethereal, disturbed by nightmares and it rapidly becomes evident that there is an unspoken and mysterious bond between her and Ferney.
' Gally was a poem with a missing line a symphony with a discordant phrase.'
The plotting is so so clever, and it's tricky to say much without lessening the impact, but all making it one of those unusual reads. The 'deep puddles of memory' connect Ferney and Gally to time immemorial as Gally realises the life she is living now is the tip of the iceberg and startling questions of history and authenticity reared up as I read. Mike cannot possibly believe anything Ferney says and as Ferney recounts events surrounding Monmouth's rebellion, which we as readers believe him to be telling as primary source truth, Mike sees memory as a palimpsest and must verify it all in a textbook.
My thinking got quite tangled in that chicken-egg way as it can and I can't explain more without ruining, but if you read the book I think you'll discover the episode I mean, it's about horses and oats and it's clever, and then you'll have your own chicken-egg moment too.
Out of print for ten years Ferney is back and deservedly so, there's something ultimately comfortable about a book that may have tapped into just one way of recounting the mysteries of eternal life, but this one's an unputdownable page turner too, and I can quite see how it achieved cult status.
Ferney taps into something primeval that you'd like to imagine was posssible, and by the time you finish the book you almost believe it might be.
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