Review by Susan Roebuck (*)
This is the second Deborah Lawrenson novel that I’ve read. The first was The Lantern which was set in Provence, an atmospheric mystery that conjured up the sights and aromas of a beautiful landscape that transported the reader right into the story.
300 Days of Sun possesses the same wonderful lyrical voice and the same ability to draw in the reader so that he/she lives the suspenseful mystery along with the novel. It is amazing that Ms. Lawrenson never lived in Portugal (unlike Provence) but still manages to produce accurate images of places, names and events, taking the reader through present-day and 1940s Faro, Lisbon, Cascais and Estoril.
As a resident for 30 years in this little-known country that clings to the edge of Western Europe by its fingernails I am amazed how well the author could portray it. She also gives the best translation for the word “Saudade” that I have ever seen.
Most people are aware of the sunny beaches and warm climate of the Algarve (hence the title) but that’s about as far as it goes. They are unaware of the rich, often violent and dark, history of the country as a whole. Portugal is like a skittish kitten sharing uneasily its borders with tiger Spain, yet it can roar just as loud: think of the cunning strategies and bravery with which the Portuguese fought the Castilians at the Battle of Aljubarrota, the same nation who later went on to become the dominant maritime power in the Indian Ocean.
Yet much more lies in the swashbuckling derring-do of Portuguese history and Ms. Lawrenson touches on the more recent, taking the reader into a gripping novel of enigmas in a fictional account of Portugal’s dark secrets. Two women’s stories are entwined. Although Alva and Joanna live seventy years apart they are both endangered by trying to unravel the secrets of not only stolen children (a most current issue), but the consequences of Portugal’s unique position of being on neither one side nor the other during World War II with its cities dripping with Nazi and British spies, and how the country’s gold reserves were accumulated from corrupt business deals.
Joanna has come to Portugal to attend a language school and to escape an unsatisfactory relationship. In Faro she befriends charismatic and handsome Nathan Emberlin who believes he was one of the children stolen twenty years ago. Joanna is recommended to read a book, a work of fiction that disguises real life (and made me think that there was a parallel with 300 Days of Sun!) that recounts the tale of an American couple (the female being Alva) in Portugal during World War II and their relationships with the Germans.
Alternating chapters build up the two stories that converge on each other so that the characters are embroiled in the same very real danger, despite the time distance.
If Ms. Lawrenson is a genius at building atmospheric settings, she also excels at creating unforgettable characters, in whatever period they live, layering their stories together so that the mystery is tethered right until the end.
This is a novel that will make its readers not only devour it until not another word is left, but will also make them sit up and think. How many other places have a glittering, shining and beautiful surface that hides a murky underside?
(*) Susan Roebuck is English but lives in Portugal where she has worked as a teacher for the British Council and the Portuguese Civil Service. She is now a full-time author and has published three books with another one nearly ready for publication. Her third book, Rising Tide, a suspense romance and a finalist in the EPIC e-book Awards 2016, is set in a fictional fishing village in the Alentejo. Her work-in-progress is also set in Portugal — in another fictional village in the Sintra Mountains.
Books by Susan Roebuck: