300 Days of Sun (12 April 2016) by Deborah Lawrenson
Something I have found about holidaying alone is that I tend to develop more intimate relationships to the places I visit. When I've stayed somewhere on my own, I often feel as though I've lived there for a short period - even if the duration of my holiday was just a few days - and find I can recall features of the area, such as the layout of streets, in far more more detail than seems usual. I'm mentioning this because the main setting of 300 Days of Sun is Faro, Portugal, which I visited on a solo trip last year, and there's no doubt that this added to my enjoyment of Deborah Lawrenson's latest novel. Specific places I actually visited - such as Ilha Deserta and the Chapel of Bones - are key to the story. There's always something a little bit thrilling about that, and though Lawrenson's description is sharp and vivid, being able to picture these places from memory definitely added to the effect.
There are two stories here, told in alternating parts. In 2014, Jo, a journalist who has fled to Faro to escape a persistent ex-boyfriend, meets Nathan at a Portuguese language class. He tells her he's there to seek the truth about his real parents, and suspects there may be links between his past and two resorts close to Faro, where a number of child abductions have taken place. Jo finds a contact with possible connections to the resorts; he gives her a book which, he says, contains information that will help her get answers. The book is a 1954 novel named The Alliance, with its roots in the real life story of its American author, Esta Hartford. Extracts from Esta's novel, set during the Second World War in Lisbon and Faro, make up the second plot strand.
I have a real weakness for the type of story in which a character investigates a mystery at a fairly slow place, by following a trail of clues - exploring locations related to the crime, looking up old newspaper articles at the local library, and arranging meetings with people who might know something, who then pass them on to other people who might know something. It's all well-trodden ground, but I absolutely love it, and Jo and Nathan's story is a perfect example. Their sections were my favourites, and I could quite happily have read a whole book about these two characters. I even loved the quiet scenes of Jo's everyday life: attending classes, pottering around her rented flat, going out for a walk and a coffee - they're so real and ordinary, and really brought Jo to life for me.
By contrast, the Esta sections take quite a while to really get going. Jo's bits are in first person and Esta's in third, which perhaps makes Esta - or rather, her avatar, Alva - harder to get close to. The content also initially seems somewhat drier, as Alva and her husband Michael (another journalist) struggle to adjust to wartime life when they find themselves stranded in Portugal. But as more is revealed, the Esta/Alva narrative becomes just as fascinating as the modern-day story; perhaps even more so, as it spans years and involves a richer sense of history.
300 Days of Sun doesn't break any new ground, but it's a lovely, gentle, feelgood read complete with gorgeous locations, an interesting mystery and a pinch of romance. It's the perfect book for anyone craving a little bit of relaxing escapism.
I received an advance review copy of 300 Days of Sun from the publisher through Edelweiss.
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