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THE STRANGER HOUSE
By Reginald Hill
HarperCollins, October, 2005
Reviewed by Shirley H. Wetzel
This was a VERY interesting book - like no other Reginald Hill I've read.
In 1992, two young people separated by thousands of miles experience life-changing events that will, years later, bring them together in the tiny Cumbrian village of Illthwaite. In Australia, on Samantha Flood's eleventh birthday she sees a documentary about English children in Catholic orphanages who had been sent to find a better life in Australia. Sadly, it didn't turn out that way for many of the children. Many were put in abusive situations, even used as slave labor in some homes. She finds the program strangely compelling, especially when she learns that a friend of her grandmother's was one of the children, but thinks it has nothing to do with her life. She knows, on that happy birthday, exactly who she is, and where she came from. Her mother Louisa claims to be "one-seventh Aborigine," and often imparts bits of wisdom and intuition she gets from "my people." Sam, already showing a gift for mathematics, knows her mom's numbers are impossible, but she goes along with it, enjoying that mysterious, sometimes weird, part of her heritage while feeling firmly grounded in her father's solid roots. She does well in school, earning a place at Cambridge University. Just before she leaves for England, her grandmother dies, and she learns that the woman she loved so dearly was actually no relation to her at all. She had adopted Sam's father when he was an infant, and it seemed very like that Sam's true grandmother was one of the English orphans.
In Spain, Miguel Ramos Elkington Madero (Mig), the sixteen-year-old son of a Spanish wine exporter and an English mother, has decided, after years of having visions and suffering stigmata, that God intends for him to be a priest. His father would rather his eldest son take over the family business. His no-nonsense priest tells him his visions have nothing to do with God. Nevertheless, Mig spends years preparing for the priesthood, but a serious climbing accident has him rethinking his plan. He decides to do research on Catholic families in England during the turbulent 16th century, focusing on families who have living descendants. One of those families still lives in the ancestral manor in Illthwaite. Mig also hopes to find some trace of one of his own ancestors, who, according to family legend, was shipwrecked somewhere on the English coast when the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588.
Sam and Mig meet in Illthwaite at the Stranger House, a hotel and public house, once the guesthouse of an ancient monastery. The old place is full of atmosphere, including a ghost or two. The whole village, in fact, is full of atmosphere, and the motley crew of locals all seem to be hiding something from the two strangers. The relationship between the two young people starts out on a rocky footing, but as they both encounter roadblocks and stone walls in their respective quests, they discover they have a great deal in common, and they gradually learn to trust and respect each other.
This stand alone is much different than Hill's police procedural series. There are strong supernatural elements, fascinating details about the momentous events of 16th century England and the effect they had on the lives of the English people, aristocracy and common folk alike, and wonderfully complex characters, both ancient and modern. There is even a bit of romance. I highly recommend THE STRANGER HOUSE.
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