Book Review: The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale by Rebecca Stonehill

The Secret Life of Alfred NightingaleAbout the Book

1967: Handsome but troubled, Jim is almost 18 and he lives and breathes girls, trad jazz, Eel Pie Island and his best friend, Charles. One night, he hears rumours of a community of young people living in caves in Matala, Crete. Determined to escape his odious, bully of a father and repressed mother, Jim hitch-hikes through Europe down to Matala.

At first, it’s the paradise he dreamt it would be. But as things start to go wrong and his very notion of self unravels, the last thing Jim expects is for this journey of hundreds of miles to set in motion a passage of healing which will lead him back to the person he hates most in the world: his father.

Format: eBook, paperback (299 pp.)           Publisher: Sunbird Press
Published: 11th November 2017                 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Structured in three parts, the first section of the book, set in 1967, is told from the point of view of seventeen-year old Jim. He is troubled by his frequent clashes with his taciturn, seemingly remote and disciplinarian father who disapproves of Jim’s trips to Eel Pie Island to listen to bands, dance and drink the night away. When Jim learns about a group of young people living in ancient caves in a place called Matala in southern Crete, he defies his father and, with his best friend, Charles, hitch-hikes across Europe to the island.

Initially, Jim is spellbound by Matala and the free and easy lifestyle of the community of young travellers he and Charles find living there, even if living conditions are basic to say the least. He becomes captivated by one girl in particular, the beautiful and free-spirited Chenoa, but in his naivety fails to grasp the ‘rules of the game’ are different here. After an act of what Jim regards as betrayal, he becomes disillusioned with what he had previously regarded as an utopia. Returning home he learns the cost of his time away is not just his father’s wrath but something much more troubling and significant.

The author conjures up a believable picture of life in the 1960s, whether that’s Jim’s home life (Vesta beef curry, foil-wrapped teacakes), the atmosphere of Eel Pie Island or the freewheeling, hippy lifestyle in Matala.

In my interview with Rebecca (see link below), she revealed one of the things she finds interesting is ‘what we share with one another and what we decide to keep to ourselves’ and described her fascination with words left unspoken. She also observed that secrets and mysteries can be the force that propels readers through a story.

In the case of The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale a significant part of the mystery for the reader is to do with when or how they are going to meet Alfred and discover the nature of his secret life. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the author keeps the reader waiting for quite a while to find out (although some readers may have an inkling earlier on). Ironically, for a long time, Jim is not even aware that secrets exist for him to discover. It’s only conversations with other cave dwellers in Crete that make him start to wonder why he knows so little about his father’s past. What Jim eventually finds out (in, for me, the most powerful parts of the book) utterly changes how he feels about his father. Perhaps they are not so very different after all? Although maybe, unlike his father, Jim has a chance to put some things right.

The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale is both an insightful coming-of-age story and a powerful exploration of the horror, heartbreak and lasting impact of war. It’s also about the kindness of strangers and the possibility of second chances.

Thanks to Rebecca for my copy of her book and for her patience in waiting for my review. You can read my earlier interview with Rebecca about the book and her approach to writing here.

Rebecca StonehillAbout the Author

Rebecca Stonehill is from London but currently lives in Nairobi with her husband and three young children where she set up Magic Pencil, an initiative to give children greater access to creative writing and poetry. She has had numerous short stories published over the years, for example in Vintage Script, What the Dickens magazine, Ariadne’s Thread and Prole Books but The Poet’s Wife (Bookouture) was her first full-length novel, set in Granada during the Spanish Civil war and Franco’s dictatorship. Her second novel, The Girl and the Sunbird, was published by Bookouture in June 2016.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale by Rebecca Stonehill

  1. This sounds pretty interesting to me – I was just in Twickenham (across the footbridge from Eel Pie Island) at the weekend! I was visiting friends there – I lived in that area for five years and loved it so much!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I lived in Shepperton for much of my youth so wasn’t too far away from Eel Pie Island either. It’s one of the things that attracted me to the book when the author approached me although it has to be said it features fairly briefly, during the early part of the book.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Hi Lola, I also lived in Twickenham for many years and loved walking over to Eel Pie Island and wishing I’d been around when those fantastic concerts took place! I really wanted my protagonist to be from Twickenham (a place close to my heart) and for the island to feature in some way in my book 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I love that idea – I think Eel Pie and the Twickenham/Richmond riverside are very special. I have put your novel on my TBR. I am very intrigued!


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