Sarnia – Hilary Ford



Sarnia, a rare female clerk in a bank, has made her way alone since her mother died, leaving her without means. But when unexpected relatives come to town, they persuade her to visit them in Guernsey, the island she's named for.


I’ve had Sarnia on my TBR pile for a while, and been unable to remember why, or who Hilary Ford was. It was only on opening it up that I recalled it’s really a Sam Youd book, apparently in a deliberately gender neutral attempt at a new audience. It is a bit of a departure from his John Christopher books, in tone and content, though not so far from some under his own name.

This is a much more adult book than his YA books, with a different kind of violence, but it’s not as great a departure as might be expected. Sarnia, the title character, is, in the mid-1800s, a somewhat sheltered woman living in a world built for men, so she’s innocent in the way that some of Christopher’s YA characters are. She’s also much more romantic, and the book hews closely to romantic tradition, with good people discernible by their fine features, and people falling in love left and right for no discernible reason.

Sarnia is a reasonable replication of a certain kind of romantic novel, reminiscent of Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen, but without some of their particular strengths. The writing is good, the characters engaging, the story interesting, yet also quite predictable. You know largely where this will go well before it’s spelled out. Ford has update the story to some extent by also spelling out some of what happens to Sarnia, yet she never really develops past a certain ‘damsel in distress’ category, needing a man to help her out, and with precious little sympathy for the ‘weakness’ of a man who doesn’t want a) the shit kicked out of him, b) to go to prison on false charges, and c) to have his religion insulted. That’s in some ways setting-appropriate, but also frustrating for more modern readers. I felt he could have given her more agency while staying true to the time period. That verisimilitude also undermines some of our sympathy for Sarnia. A woman who’s known difficulty, and has had to work and manage on her own, we learn, when she encounters a filthy house that desperately needs cleaning, that she immediately pitches in and is exhausted by having to employ and direct another woman to do the cleaning. (Mind, she has someone else find and hire the cleaning woman).

Other travails, their work as plot obstacles done, are quickly left behind. I give Ford credit for following up on his main update to the familiar outline (at the very end of the book), but he resolves it so quickly and easily that he undermines his own work. On the whole, Sarnia, while a pleasant read, feels more like a book destined to be a television special miniseries than a paper book. Not bad, but difficult to recommend strongly beyond the Youd-enthusiast community.

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