The Girl in the Letter by Emily Gunnis - book review: The fast-paced story falls into place like an intriguing jigsaw with each player proving to be a piece in the finished picture

The Girl in the Letter by Emily Gunnis
The Girl in the Letter by Emily Gunnis

When journalist Samantha Harper finds a decades-old letter from a pregnant, unmarried girl, desperate to avoid being sent to a mother-and-baby home, it leads to a shocking tale of hardship, cruelty and death.

Emily Gunnis faced a daunting task to live up to the reputation of her mother – the late, great blockbuster author Penny Vincenzi – when she set out to write her debut novel and discovered that ‘it’s a great deal harder than my mother made it look!’

Dissatisfied with her work as a TV script writer, Gunnis stuck to her guns and the result is The Girl in the Letter, a hard-hitting and heart-wrenching story focusing on the Catholic convents which ran their homes ‘like a Victorian workhouse.’

Although these institutions were mainly based in Ireland, where the infamous Magdalene laundries incarcerated thousands of women, some homes are known to have existed in the UK and Gunnis believes the mothers who were forced to give up their babies ‘have kept that secret locked inside them.’

And it is this devastating hidden anguish which Gunnis explores in her accomplished first novel as we weave between past and present to unearth the shocking truth behind the doors of a dark and brooding Gothic mansion tucked away in an isolated corner of East Sussex.

When schoolgirl Ivy Jenkins falls pregnant in 1956 and is abandoned by her boyfriend, she is sent in disgrace by her mother and stepfather to St Margaret’s, a dark, brooding house for unmarried mothers not far from where she lives.

For as long as she can remember, the old mansion, with its jagged turrets and stained-glass windows, has haunted her. A couple of girls from her school have been sent there to have babies… one returned a shadow of her former self, and the other has not been seen since.

Three years later, Ivy is still incarcerated in St Margaret’s where she is cruelly mistreated. Her baby has been adopted against her will and she is forced to stay on at the home to pay back her ‘debt’ to the nuns. Ivy knows now that she will never leave.

In 2017, Samantha (Sam) Harper, an unmarried mother to four-year-old Emma, is a London journalist struggling to make her mark in a man’s world. When she comes across a letter written in 1956, she is both shocked and moved by the writer’s heartfelt words.

The letter is from a young mother to the father of her unborn child, begging him to rescue her from being sent to St Margaret’s before it’s too late. Soon Sam is pulled into the tragic story and discovers a spate of unexplained deaths surrounding the woman and her child.

With St Margaret’s set for demolition in just two days’ time to make way for a new housing development, Sam has only hours to piece together a 60-year-old mystery before the truth, which lies disturbingly close to home, is lost for ever...

Using a vast amount of research and a story that packs a powerful emotional punch, Gunnis delivers a gripping novel that melds mystery, real history, nail-biting suspense and a story of suffering so callous and so distressing that it is guaranteed to break the hearts of readers.

Multi-layered and atmospheric, The Girl in the Letter is carefully plotted and beautifully imagined as Sam races to uncover the lies and cover-ups over events at St Margaret’s before the convent and its dark past is forever obliterated.

The fast-paced story falls into place like an intriguing jigsaw with each player proving to be a piece in the finished picture… their secrets, their suppressed former lives and their extraordinary testimonies are just waiting to be retrieved, and for someone to finally hear a host of forgotten voices.

This is a tale of despair, bitterness and hopelessness but it is also an airing of the truth, an opportunity to reflect on past injustices, and a chance to bring some sort of resolution to a generation of cruelly oppressed women.

(Headline, paperback, £7.99)