(2022) Andrew Hunter Murray, Hutchinson Heinemann, £14.99, hrdbk, 391pp, ISBN 978-1-529-15157-2
The Sanctuary is one of those books that slowly but relentlessly draws you in. Not a lot happens, and what does happen does so slowly, until the story eventually reaches its climax and end. And it does so very enjoyably.
Ben is a painter and has just finished work on his latest commission - the portrait of a well-to-do family in one of the hundreds of Villages created by Sir John Pemberley. These are more than merely gated communities, they are the specially built, highly desirable places for those families that have succeeded and who no longer have to live with the mundane people in the rest of the country. They are so much ‘nicer’ and what the wealthy strive for, but they are also somewhat dead as any form of challenge has been specifically excluded.
Ben is on his way home, back to his small flat in the city. The city is never named, neither even is the country, but it feels like it could be London, and therefore the country England. If it is not, if it set in another world, then it certainly has a similar feel. Perhaps the point is that it does not matter exactly where the story happens, what is important is what happens in the story and why.
Ben is looking forward to the return of his fiancée Cara that very evening, He has seen less and less of her since she went to work for Sir John Pemberley on his latest project, on a remote island known as Sanctuary Rock, somewhere off the northwest coast. However, checking the post, he finds a brief letter from Cara - she is not coming back, at all, the project is too important. With no immediate work in hand, and therefore little else to do, Ben decides to pack up his painting gear and make his way to the island, to see Cara and find out why she will not return to him. This is easier said than done; not only is travel difficult in general, especially when he does not have much money, but, having arrived in the vicinity, there is no public access to the island. He tries phoning Cara, but the secretaries merely tell him she knows he has called and will get back to him - but she never does. He wonders deeply what is really going on. Is she a prisoner of the project? Has something dreadful happened to her and they are covering it up? He must get onto the island!
Borrowing a small boat, he makes his way uninvited to the island, almost dying when the boat hits rocks and sinks. Rescued and in the island’s small clinic, awaiting his forced return to the mainland, Ben is surprised to find himself invited to meet Sir John Pemberley, indeed, to be his guest at dinner, the nightly communal meal shared by all the islanders. Pemberley takes a liking to him and decides he should stay on the island. Furthermore, his daughter Bianca will show him round, show him everything that is going on on this experimental island as they try to find more sustainable ways of living. Ben is assigned a small house and Pemberley even commissions a portrait (how else will Ben to get to know him well enough?). Pemberley wants Ben to understand all that the island is about, to buy into the project. Of Cara, though, there is still no sign, despite Pemberley’s promises that she will be back any day now.
Ben meets many of the island’s inhabitants, learns many aspects of life there, and sees much that impresses him. However, doubt still lingers, especially due to the continuing silence and absence of Cara, and the island clearly has other mysteries which also worry him. As Pemberley’s long-term plan is obviously nearing completion, what will Ben learn? What will he do? And where is Cara???
All told, a well written and pleasant read that takes its time to gently take you to where it is going.
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