As someone with a strong interest in history, I have always enjoyed stories that satisfy my interest in the past at some level. So, I read a lot of historical fiction, but I also like a good time travel/time slip story line, books like The Time Traveler’s Wife, Shadow of Night and 11.22.63. My curiosity was therefore most definitely piqued when I heard that Quercus were planning on rereleasing the best-selling time slip novel Ferney by James Long this month in advance of the long-awaited sequel being released in October. Ferney is a book that has built up something of a cult following after its original release in 1998; when it went out of print, there were tales of copies changing hands on the internet for as much as £85 as so many people still wanted to read it. To say this novel was something of a word of mouth success is a bit of an understatement. It was, then, with a great sense of anticipation that I sat down to read this sleeper hit (which, thanks to the nice people at Quercus, did not cost me such a large amount, I am pleased to say).
Ferney is a mysterious and unusual book indeed. It is 1989, and Mike and Gally have recently married. He feels very protective of his pretty young wife, who has always seemed fragile as a result of a childhood trauma, and all the more so after she experiences a miscarriage. Aware that she seems unsettled living with him in London, they seek out a country house together, eventually buying a tumbledown cottage in deepest Somerset after Gally feels it is the perfect place for them to live, as much for the rich historical landscape that surrounds it as for the feel of the building itself. They move into a caravan on site as the house is slowly repaired, but their happiness at building this new home together is disturbed by local octogenarian Ferney, who makes regular visits to the cottage.
Ferney also seems drawn to this house, and drawn to Gally in particular, who he seems to know an awful lot about. Reluctantly at first and then with more urgency as the old man feels himself moving closer to death, Ferney compels Gally to delve into memories she didn’t know she had – memories of many past Ferneys and Gallys, whose minds become reborn in new bodies once they die, and who are forever drawn together over the centuries, creating a thousand year romance. Ferney insists they can only ever be happy when they can be with each other, but Gally’s growing friendship with and affection for the old man raises conflict with Mike and threatens their marriage. How can she face this inexplicable truth of her existence and be fair to both the men in her life – and what will happen when the current incarnation of Ferney dies and leaves Gally again so soon after she has found him?
“What I liked the most, though, was the sense of history that book brought…”
At a little over 500 pages in length, Ferney is quite a substantial read. I found it something of a slow burner and it took me quite a while to really get into the story, as it takes the first half to really build up and get going. (I also spent quite a lot of time trying to reconcile why Mike, who clearly doesn’t like leaving his sensitive wife alone, would think it a good idea to have a house on the other side of the country for her to live in while he works in London and just visits at the weekends – but it is necessary for later parts of the plot to work so I just tried to accept it). However, once things really start to get moving in the second half of the book, I found it increasingly compelling and hard to put down (and managed to ignore the aforementioned inconsistency a lot easier).
This is a book that offers much to the reader prepared to invest the time in it. The love story isn’t saccharine or overly sentimental, and explanation for it that is hinted at is revealed just enough for it to be tantalising. The characters come across as real people, and the prose is enjoyable to read, becoming almost poetic in its descriptions of the countryside that Long clearly loves as much as his protagonists. What I liked the most, though, was the sense of history that book brought – clearly a good deal of research had been done is laying the events of Ferney’s and Gally’s memories down. That Mike is an academic historian whose theories are challenged by Ferney – the man who has lived through and has a different perspective on the events that Mike has only read about – just adds a nice extra layer to proceedings.
By the end of the book I had the feeling that I had just read something that will stay with me a long time, and I am now certainly looking forward to the sequel (The Lives She Left Behind) to learn more of Ferney and Gally’s story. Ferney is not your standard romantic novel, fantasy story or historical tale, but rather a charming blend of all three that is sure to appeal to a wide readership.
Ferney by James Long
Originally published in 1998, I read the 2012 paperback edition released by Quercus.
With thanks to Quercus for providing me with this review copy of Ferney.
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