Book review: The Memory of Lost Senses by Judith Kinghorn

‘If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory.’

By Pam Norfolk
Friday, 5th April 2013, 1:30 pm
The Memory of Lost Senses by Judith Kinghorn
The Memory of Lost Senses by Judith Kinghorn

Jane Austen’s observation from Mansfield Park lies at the heart of Judith Kinghorn’s exquisite new novel, a sensual and visual feast of a story, and a powerful follow-up to last year’s enthralling debut, The Last Summer.

The Memory of Lost Senses is a mesmerising book of finely wrought words, the evocative tale of an elderly woman for whom the past is both a comfort and a tyranny, a place that holds unutterably beautiful memories, and painful events that torment and haunt.

With her life and strength ebbing away in the hot summer of 1911, can the notoriously enigmatic Cora, Countess de Chevalier de Saint Léger, finally confront the demons of her colourful youth?

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Kinghorn’s languorous journey into the past takes us from a small, rural English village to the glamour of Paris and to 19th century Rome when it was still a small city, ‘shrivelled within its walls,’ a place of scattered ruins where ‘cows and sheep grazed about the tumbled pillars of ancient palaces.’

Beautifully descriptive, intriguing and full of emotion-packed, slow-motion snapshots, Cora’s life unfolds through a series of vivid flashbacks teased out by her own bewildered and bewildering memories and by the characters who cross her path during the long summer days.

‘Never look back,’ Cora’s aunt told her nearly 70 years ago and for a very long time, she only looked forward but now, back home in England forever, she is burdened by secrets and lies which thrash about on the periphery of her thoughts and lie heavily on her conscience.

She has experienced grand passion of such complete abandonment that ‘only the senses were alive’ but she has also met with betrayal, suffering, death and madness.

The ‘holding-in’ has become too much and her handsome grandson Jack Staunton, the only living member of her lost family and her legacy to the world, must not be damaged by her foolishness, pride, pain, sorrow and regret.

Meanwhile, no one is more intrigued than Cecily Chadwick by the mysterious, elderly countess who has arrived to live at Temple Hill, the large, deserted house on the edge of the sleepy Hampshire village of Bramley.

The young schoolteacher, who has caught the eye of Cora’s grandson Jack, is feeling suffocated by the constraints of her unchanging village life and is bowled over by rumours of Cora’s exotic life spent criss-crossing Europe and senses ‘something of unutterable tragedy’ lying at the heart of her past.

What Cecily doesn’t yet know is that an anonymous threat has been made to reveal Cora’s ruinous secret and it will be the job of Sylvia Dorland, a successful novelist and Cora’s close friend who has come to stay at Temple Hill, to put the record straight.

As Cecily’s romance with Jack blossoms and the past is unearthed, we learn that memories – and the truth – can be more surprising than one could ever have imagined.

Thoughtful, delicately crafted and imaginative, The Memory of Lost Senses is a page-turning, atmospheric mystery story but with a powerful, all-consuming love affair burning deep at its core to direct the action ... and steal our hearts.

(Headline, paperback, £13.99)