Book review: The Good Messenger by John Simmons

The Good Messenger is the second novel I have read by John Simmons and I have to say I am a fan of this author’s writing style. Here’s why…

John Simmons

About The Good Messenger

1912: Tom Shepherd reluctantly stays for two weeks at Hardinge Hall. Mr and Mrs Hardinge are trying to arrange a marriage for their son Teddy to Iris, daughter of a local businessman. Tommy becomes the innocent messenger who delivers the secret arrangements.

Armistice Day 1918: The First World War has changed everything, especially the closeted world that Iris, Teddy and Tom existed in.

1927. Tom is now a journalist investigating the discovery of a baby’s bones in the woods around Hardinge Hall. Past and present move towards a resolution that might still bring everything crashing down.

My Review of The Good Messenger

The Good Messenger opens with a short and fragmented prologue that sets up a mystery unfolding in the pages to follow – the death of a soldier in WWI, his wife, his mother, a man visiting a prostitute in a doorway. In Part One, Simmons takes his readers back in time to 1912, when nine year old Tommy, the son of a cleaner, spends two weeks at Hardinge Hall. He encounters the benevolent Mr Hardinge and his mean-spirited wife, their son Teddy and his sullen sister, Muriel, along with another guest, Iris, who, if the Hardinges have their way, will be Teddy’s wife. Tommy is bemused, confused, in awe and a little terrified of his new and strange surroundings. An obedient and innocent boy, he obliges when Teddy, Iris and the barmaid Rosie, require him to pass messages back and forth. Part Two introduces Iris as an author, describing through the lens of her protagonist the mixed moods of Armistice Day out in the streets of London. In Part Three we meet Tommy as an adult, Tom, a freelance journalist given an assignment by a newspaper that takes him back to Hardinge Hall. There he unravels the  complex mystery of the Hardinge family, its dark secrets and tragedies, and, he falls in love.

Reminiscent of The Go Between and, in structure, of Atonement, The Good Messenger is a novel to sip and savour. References to Wind in the Willows lends a timeless, magical quality to the first part of the narrative, Tommy making sense of the world around him through comparisons with Mole and Ratty. Tommy’s reality is one of discovery, wonder and enchantment. The reader cannot help but adore the little boy, smile sometimes, feel saddened at others.

The characters throughout the novel are full-rounded and sensitively portrayed. The reader will sympathise with all of Simmon’s cast, even the sour and uptight Mrs Hardinge. The only character that remains somewhat in the shadows for a long time is Tom’s mother. Even when the narrative light shines her way, she remains a background figure, her development perhaps sacrificed to the confines of plot. In my mind, she represents some of the space between the lines of this story, a space for the reader to fill.

The construction of The Good Messenger works beautifully. The novel is at first a story of innocence observing the manipulations and deceptions of others, of class and its barriers, of old money and new, of poverty and its consequences for women, of prejudice, and of propriety and the inevitable antithesis. Simmons conveys well the changing of the times, WWI marking the end of one period of history and the beginning of another. Perhaps The Good Messenger is a novel to read twice, the reader drawn back, particularly to the prologue and Part Two, to reflect and ponder in the light of the revelations that follow, Part Two  especially pivotal in developing the theme of the changing times.

The narrative pace is slow, the storytelling descriptive. Simmons has a soothing style, allowing his readers to ease themselves into the setting and get to know the characters, his voice more a whisper, seductive, spoken with a welcoming hand. In Part Three, the narrative pace shifts up a notch. Simmons makes use of the first person perspective to provide a more intimate and urgent feel. The prose remains soft, but there is a touch more bounce to it. As the plot unfolds and rises to a climax, culminating in a series of shocking revelations, Simmons satisfies his readers and leaves no loose ends.

I commend Simmons for his handling of the trauma of war; his depiction of the soldiers who had witnessed the horrors in the trenches through the perspective of the onlooker, Tom, and the medical profession at the time, are well-researched and insightful.

Simmons’ writing is that of the water-colourist, all muted tones bleeding into each other, the tone never brash or overbearing. The author has finesse, his words seeping into the psyche like balm. Poignant, moving, romantic, and sometimes shocking, The Good Messenger is a lovely book to read, and then to treasure. A classic.

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