There is nothing obvious, nothing in your face in this novel. The tension between the characters is for the main part in what isn’t said. That’s one of the reasons I love Clare Ashton’s writing, that way she has of letting the reader infer from what’s between the words rather than from the words themselves. The words are the frame for the feelings the story she’s telling evokes. Everything is in the implicit. From the first sentence, the atmosphere is set. Little things, suspicions, not knowing is scarier than knowing. Ashton cloaks the village of Foel in a shroud of unease that gets darker and grimmer as the story develops.
Sophie Melling inherited her father’s manor in Foel, Wales, and, having moved back home wishes she could live her life quietly without responsibilities towards the village. Beth Griffiths moved back to her parents’ too, to care for her ailing mother and get away from her life. Not long after, villagers start receiving notes, unveiling their secrets.
This isn’t the kind of story in which twists and revelations explode in fireworks. There are plenty of twists and revelations, however. On the surface, the story is unassuming and takes its time to progress, all the better to surprise the reader, breathlessly trying to hold on to the illusion of comfort, with unexpected developments. And the ending is like the sun finally bursting through the clouds, brilliant and warm.
There are a lot of characters, a whole village and more, and they’re all wonderfully written. I love that how Beth sees herself isn’t who Sophie thinks she is, that Sophie isn’t who the rest of the world thinks she is, that Elin is exactly as beautiful, both inside and outside, as everyone thinks she is. This isn’t a romance, yet there is a love story, more than one actually, and they’re just as captivating as the rest of the book, in that subdued way Clare Ashton hides them behind. The unsaid, once again, actually says a lot.
The Tell Tale is a story of lost people finding themselves and each other and of dominants being taken down. With their anonymous letters and veiled threats, the tell tale is first portrayed as, or at least assumed to be the villain. But as the story develops, they become not exactly the saviour of the village, but the harbinger of truth. In a world ruled by stifling men and immovable patriarchy, it seems that change can only come from violence, physical or emotional. Truth can be a very effective weapon, bringing shame to some and freedom to others.
There’s a lot of fear in this book. Ashton set it in the 1970s but a lot of that fear is still relevant today. Frustration too, at how easy it is to mistreat women, to sideline them, dismiss them. The Tell Tale is a book that says educate your sons, empower your daughters.
If you’re looking for a fluffy read, get another book. If, however, you’re looking for a story that will engage your mind, well-written, smart, spellbinding, you’ve found it.