When Cary's marriage breaks down she goes on holiday to Turkey to try to raise her spirits. While she is there a violent earthquake devastates the resort and the ensuing tidal wave washes away all of her belongings. Cary does what she can to help the injured and dying but without speaking the language she finds herself sidelined. Then an Englishman she had met on the beach the previous day takes her down to the quay and leads her onto a fishing boat, telling her he is taking her somewhere safe. Cary's first instinct is to think of her missing possessions and documents but then realises that this is the perfect opportunity to disappear. Some hours later the boat pulls into a small harbour on the tiny Greek island of Halemni where the small population is also clearing up from the earthquake. The mysterious man waits until Cary is involved in the clear up and then silently slips away.
Living on Halemni is Olivia, an Englishwoman who lives there with her Greek husband and two children. Seeing the bedraggled Cary with no belongings, Olivia offers her a bed in her house, thinking that Cary is clearly traumatised by what has happened and will talk when she is ready.
Very quickly Cary settles into to life on the quiet island and Olivia's family and gradually the two women appear almost to exchange identities. Olivia finds she misses her old life of travelling and pampering herself while Cary finds herself uninterested in her appearance and happy to live a rather parochial life away from the hustle and bustle of London. Olivia begins to feel uncomfortable about the easy way Cary has blended in to Halemni life and with Cary still unwilling to shed light on her past Olivia starts to become anxious about Cary's real intentions.....
This is a novel that left me well and truly stumped as I reached the final page. After four hundred pages I honestly didn't know what the outcome was. Did I miss something crucial to the story? The simple answer I that I don't think so. Without giving too much away I will say that I was confused as to whether some of the characters had ever really existed, whether ultimately they had been a figment of imagination of another character. And what of the Englishman who had rescued Cary and taken her to safety in Halemni? Why did he never appear again in the Greek village? And why did Cary not ask anyone on Halemni who he was? Come to think of it, why did no one ever press Cary as to who she was? It all seemed too incredible to me.
But there was something quite compelling about this book. I hadn't expected to enjoy it much at all. In fact I only came to have it in my possession because I needed a ninth book to make up a 'ten for one Pound' offer in a local charity shop and I was drawn in by the appealing cover image of whitewashed houses in a Greek village. However the opening line of the book hooked me and this book held my attention throughout. Perhaps if I'd had an inkling that four hundred pages later I wouldn't know what the conclusion was, I might not have started but given the quality of the writing and the interesting characterisation I don't feel like I wasted my time entirely.
This is the first of Rosie Thomas's many novels I have read though I do know she is well travelled and incorporates aspects of her travel experiences in her novels. She has certainly painted an evocative and characterful picture of a quiet Greek island in 'The Potter's House'; she covers the culture, the geography and the social history effortlessly and this really enhances the story and goes some way to explaining why the villagers behave as they do.
The characters were brilliantly drawn and were all believable. I especially liked the contrast between Olivia and Cary - women of a similar age and from a similar background but who subconsciously craved the life the other had. In particular Cary was a wonderful portrait and her stoic suffering while her husband 'entertained' the girl upstairs. Her quiet dignity in the face of humiliation made her pain even more real and the book's opening line reflects how she carries herself "The first time I saw the woman who later ran off with my husband she was giving directions to two removals men. They were struggling to lift a sofa round an awkward bend in the communal stairs and I was waiting to pass"; although Cary didn't know at the time what the future held in store, the measured way in which she refers to what happened is very typical of her.
Best of all I liked the Greek villagers, especially Olivia's mother-in-law, the archetypal old Greek lady, dressed in black and watching her daughter-in-law's every move to make sure her beloved son and grandsons were properly looked after. Perhaps some of the other villagers were portrayed as stereotypes but they were generally credible and easy to care about.
The writing was way above what I had expected; well crafted characters, a charming backdrop and a gripping premise that is unusual but certainly believable. The idea of someone faking their own death, or at least disappearing from view, is not a highly original one but here Rosie Thomas does give it an interesting twist. At the heart of the story is how and what the two women learn about themselves and their lives; if I had to classify it as a particular genre I would find it quite difficult, 'human drama' is about as close as I can manage.
In spite of being clueless at the end I did enjoy 'The Potter's House' and I think I'll probably read some of Rosie Thomas's other books although I don't think I'd go out to buy them. I'm glad I approached this with an open mind, it's really not the sort of thing I would have picked up at full price or even borrowed from the library. 'The Potter's House' is a beach book, entertaining and thought-provoking without being too taxing - in fact if you are heading to Greece this summer this would be a very appropriate read.
Rated three stars of five, would have been four if not for the bizarre ending
Available from the princely sum of 1 New Pence on amazon