The Secrets of Rochester Place

At the end of January, as I was preparing for the Battle of Jarama commemoration I received a message from Sharon:

A friend of my nieces has written her 5th novel, she also writes under the name Nuala Casey, (she is Luke Casey’s daughter) and Nuala Ellwood and this one was under Iris Costello, as it’s a different genre.
The book was The Secrets of Rochester Place . Sharon holds a special place in my heart as she has provided me with a wonderful link to a fascinating chapter in local history, for she is the daughter of Fermin Magdalena; a Basque Refugee who with his brother and two sisters was cared for at Hutton Hall. Julia,  Sharon and Teresa have shared material with me and attended our 2021 Volunteers for Liberty event; they can be seen chatting to me at the event below.
The reason why Sharon was recommending this book in particular is made clear in the acknowledgements :
Nuala has used Fermin’s memories to enrich the character of Teresa, whilst Firmin was settled in the Colony at Hutton Hall, the fictional Teresa is evacuated to London in the wake of the Guernica bombing, eventually finding safety in Rochester Place.  It is a credit to the author that the character of Teresa is such a wonderful representation of a Basque child refugee, Nuala has managed to highlight the myriad of concerns,  challenges and difficulties they faced.

For me Teresa’s story was, of the four intertwined stories, at first the most of interest to me, but that may be because I had invested more into this story thread previously, however the skillful way in which Nuala has woven the four main strands together is the highlight of this wonderful book, quite rapidly I was absorbed into the other three threads. I did not feel, at any point, that the places where the stories touched and linked were contrived or forced, the changes in location or storyline I felt created unsettling changes in pace, which fits the mystery aspect very well. The reader is never comfortable that they have the full picture; there is always a feeling that you are missing out on something, there is a gap in knowledge and this feeling remains right up until the final resolution.

The primary story is that of Corrine, it is set in present day Tooting, where Corrine is an emergency call handler, taking calls from people who need help and talking them through it until the emergency services arrive.  The book starts with one call she gets that is very different  to others, one that stays with her. It’s from a woman called Mary, asking her to save her daughter who is trapped at Rochester Place but when the emergency services get there there’s no sign of Mary, and even more mysteriously Rochester Place is also not there.  Corinne is used to hoaxes but something feels different about this one. The choice of Tooting was quite evocative, as Ta-ra to Tooting  is possibly the most emotional song in The Young’uns The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff.  and you should know by now what that started!

The third story strand is that of Mary, an Irishwoman trying to make her way in the world and in particular carefully make her way in an England which has no linking for Women or the Irish. I feel that it was this character, of the three women, to which Nuala most readily associated herself.

As Sharon had explained Nuala was the daughter of the much loved Journalist and broadcaster Luke Casey, which brings me to why this book resonated so much with me. Luke Casey was born in Ballina, County Mayo, which explains the background given to the character of Mary.

By coincidence I’m currently working on a book about Sam Wild and his mother, Mary Ann McGrail, was born in Castlebar, County Mayo, just ten miles from Ballina, I’m therefore researching this area. Hence as I was reading about the fictional character of Mary from County Mayo and her experiences in England I was writing about a Mary McGrail from County Mayo who travelled to England a decade before her fictional namesake. Obviously this further added to my enjoyment of this fabulous book.

Image from Drake the Bookshop

The coincidences just kept piling up, for Nuala chose to launch The Secrets of Rochester Place at Drake the Bookshop, which as everyone knows is the finest Bookshop in the North of England, and is in Silver Street, Stockton. Sadly I missed this launch event on 15th December 2022. A further coincidence is that it was in Stockton that Luke Casey began his journalistic career; in 1956, having only been in England for two years he started work as a junior reporter on the Northern Echo in their Stockton Office. It was also in this Stockton Office that Luke met Nuala’s mother Mavis, Luke and Mavis had been married sixty three years when Luke died on 31st October 2022; a matter of weeks before the launch of this book in Stockton.

The fourth strand, the story of Rochester Place is hugely evocative of the period, highlighting the affluence of a small number in the inter-war years, which only accentuates the inequality of the times: being aware of and writing on the National Hunger Marches, the reports from Stockton’s Dr M’Gonigle  and the work of George and Phyllis Short I found the contrast with the picture of Rochester Place jarring, which only served to underscore the sense of unease the mystery created.

I try to vary my reading , as I have had a vastly unbalanced bias towards the Spanish Civil War over the past five years. I have read some exceptional books in that time and this book ranks highly. For many reasons this book is very very special, and for this reason it is difficult to portray it’s outstanding quality  – I cannot recommend this book more highly. I think people should read this book – this is the reason I have not talked about the plot lines. It is beautifully written, with a wealth of detail presented in a subtle way, in fact I feel that each storyline could hold up alone, which makes the intertwining and final culmination of the stories so substantial. It will appeal to a very wide audience: those interested in mysteries, those with an interest in the Spanish Civil War and the Basque refugees, those with an interest in Irish History and those with an interest in historical fiction will find this of special interest. However I think this would appeal equally to readers without a special interest in an aspect of the story lines.

When you look to get a copy (note I don’t say ‘if’) please consider getting it from Drake the Bookshop:this can be done by using this link I’m certain you will love this book as much as I do.





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