Valley of Secrets

by Charmian Hussey
ISBN: 0670063800

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A Review of: The Valley of Secrets
by Antony Di Nardo

Ever start reading a novel and the first few chapters really draw you in, urge you to go on, but then the rest of the book falls flat and disappoints? If you haven't, try reading Charmian Hussey's The Valley of Secrets, and you'll see what I mean.
You'll find the first three chapters compelling, offering a fanciful caricature of an English town replete with rural atmosphere and even a quirky postman. There's the promise of a ripping tale about to be told by a narrator with an eye for detail and an ear for that long, descriptive sentence, centuries old in style, that conjures gardens and the English countryside. She also sets the tone for mysteries-to-come with sentences such as this one: "The huge rhododendron bushes and trees that had once lined the drive-presumably in an orderly fashion-were now so completely overgrown that, in some places, they touched in the middle, providing a depressingly dark, dank screen-a screen of perfect privacy for whatever it was that lay beyond. But, the next 75 chapters-yes, that many and each one illustrated with excellent pencil sketches-hold nothing of the promising debut of those first few pages.
Having introduced the novel's main character, "an old-fashioned kind of boy," the writing and the story collapse into prosaic descriptors and distracting details. It's preachy, pedantic, over-written. The first rule of good writing is broken: we are told everything and shown nothing. There's minimal dialogue and a minimum of action. Yet, we learn everything about this boy's rather ordinary habits: when he goes to the washroom, what he keeps in the cupboard, how worn his shoes are. We know what he eats at every meal, chapter after chapter. And this quickly begins to irritate and interfere with the telling of the story, a story that is mired in minutiae-descriptions of curtains, Victorian tiles and wallpaper designs by Morris. It becomes tiresome to read what's for breakfast or dinner, when what the reader wants is to be told what happens next. A story that could easily have been written in half the number of pages with twice the level of excitement gets lost in the details.
The story is about a boy named Stephen who inherits Langley Hall from his eccentric and reclusive great-uncle. Stephen is an orphaned adolescent of indeterminate age. He moves into the estate, situated on the coast of Cornwall, and he slowly, very slowly, explores the house and its sprawling grounds. It's a place where secrets thrive. Mysterious visitors come and go. Stephen soon discovers his great-uncle's diary, which tells of his adventure in the Amazon jungle. The diary becomes a page-turner for him as the mystery surrounding Langley Hall and his own parents is explained. Stephen finds his love of nature, of things wild and untamed, of flora and fauna, reflected in the legacy of his family's estate. And he sees for himself that there's more of the Amazon jungle at Langley Hall than in just his great-uncle's diary.
Stephen says of the diary that "the writing went on and on and on," a characteristic of narrative that the author herself obviously favours. Granted, she knows her flora and provides accurate and interesting descriptions of these. And she's quite inventive with the fauna. She also appends a list of species that are mentioned in her story, including common and scientific names, along with page references. It's a surprisingly long list, but then, it is a surprisingly long story that soon loses the reader's interest. I would have preferred more of the great-uncle's Amazon diary and less of Stephen. As I approached the last hundred pages the secrets were all too well revealed and there was little of the story left to be told. Yet it went on and on and I endured more rhetoric on the plight of the rainforests and additional descriptions of Victorian crafts. I'm not so sure a young reader would have had the same patience.
A word about the book's title. The "valley" on the grounds of Langley Hall is lush, exotic, a tropical exaggeration perhaps for the Cornish countryside, but a tolerable one. As for "secrets", well, there are many in this novel, but the best-kept secret must be how it ever escaped the pen of a judicious editor.

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