Book Review for “At the Stroke of Nine O’clock” by Jane Davis.
Summary: On the 12th of August 1949, Big Ben was prevented from chiming at 9pm by four and a half minutes because a flock of starlings perched on the minute hand. This event initially panicked the British public, who didn’t know that it was only birds that stopped the clock. In Davis’ new novel, this is not only a starting point for her story, but also a metaphor for the lives of three fictional women living in post-WWII era London, whose lives are about to intersect. From the blurb on Goodreads, each of these three, very different women “believes she has already lost in life, not knowing how far she still has to fall. Six years later, one cause will unite them: when a young woman commits a crime of passion and is condemned to hang, remaining silent isn’t an option.” This young woman is the real-life Ruth Ellis – who was the last woman sentenced to death in England.
I have to say that although I haven’t read all of Davis’ books (I do intend to correct this grave omission, however), this feels like the most ambitious of all that I have read. On the one hand, we have three very different women. We have Caroline Whitby, a country girl sent by her family to London to earn money to keep them alive. Then there is Ursula Delancy, an actress of the stage and screen whose name is in the papers for all the wrong reasons (and some of the right ones). Finally, Davis gives us Patrice Hawtree, the duchess in the loveless, childless marriage, whose husband is a danger to her home and ancestry. To top this off, we have Ruth Ellis and her story. That’s four women, which seems like quite a whole lot, and it might feel like Ruth’s story is unnecessary. However, I believe that Davis couldn’t resist including her, because as it says in the blurb for this book, regarding her interest in Ruth Ellis, “I know how certain facts can be presented in such a way that there is no way to defend yourself. Not without hurting those you love.” What brings this all together is how Davis applies this to all three of her fictional women in her story.
I should also admit that there was a point while reading this that I thought that maybe Davis had bitten off more than she could chew. However, with a bit of patience, what you’ll find here is an intricate jigsaw puzzle, of the kind that is the most challenging, where you have to look at each piece very carefully before you can figure out where it falls into place. However, by the time you get to the point where the lives of these three women intersect with Ruth Ellis, you’ll see the whole picture, in all its vibrant colors. Of course, more parts to the puzzle are introduced with bits of Ruth’s story from the beginning of the book, which Davis scatters between the stories of these three women (plus one man, a journalist, who is necessary to the story, but not a romantic interest for any of them, thank heavens). This is why I say you need a bit of patience here, because to begin with, you might not understand the connections. Despite this, it is well worth the wait, because that’s where you’ll see Davis’ true artistry in storytelling.
By the time all the bits of picture were fitting together, that’s when I realized just how complex each of these characters actually were. That doesn’t mean they seemed overly simple before this, but that the convergence of these women, and their stories gave Davis a way to give them yet another dimension to their characters – that being the idea that no matter how much they’d experienced difficulties, or even if those troubles might feel more or less significant, depending on their stations in life, these women knew that when they saw something that was an injustice, that they couldn’t stand by without trying to rectify the matter, even if that injustice didn’t directly impact their own lives. If there were things about any of these women that we didn’t care for from their own actions, their unity during a time of crisis for someone totally unknown to them, made up for any past failures or character faults.
It occurred to me that this is why this book feels so very timely, and is also evergreen. The past years have seen the rise of the #MeToo movement, and more recently, the racial protests in the US, not to mention how people from countries across the world (for the most part) are stepping up during this pandemic. With this novel, Davis seems to want to give us hope that we can come together and help one another, even if it comes at our own personal risk. Furthermore, the delay in Big Ben’s chime seems to be a metaphor that tells us that justice can and will come, even if unseen forces try to delay its arrival. While I wasn’t sure if this would be my final rating while I was reading this novel, I think that after finishing this book, and having thought about it, I can’t give this book less than a full five stars.
Amazon.com Services LLC released “At the Stroke of Nine O’clock” by Jane Davis on July 13, 2020, although the paperback will only be released on August 28, 2020 via Rossdale Print Productions. This book is (or will be) available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBook), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook), The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary). I would like to thank the author Jane Davis for personally sending me the ARC of this novel.