Northwords Now

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Had We Never Loved So Blindly by Liz MacRae Shaw

Top Hat Books (2021) £12.99

A Review by Cynthia Rogerson

This novel proves the adage Don’t judge a book by the cover, for the cover does not in any way convey the kind of story inside. I’m very grateful I was sent it to review, for I would never have bought it based on appearance.  The title is also poor, for the famous line from Robert Burns is so cliché, it only signals sentimentality – and this book does not contain that despicable item.  But the title does at least have relevance, for the two main characters are visually impaired.  And like Burn’s Ae Fond Kiss, Shaw’s story is a romantic tragedy – but then, isn’t tragedy the definition of romance?

  Shaw, who studied history at Oxford and lives on the Isle of Skye, is not a poetic writer. Nor is her style particularly sophisticated or subtle. She doesn’t seem to bother with the usual writerly devices.  What she does instead, is effortlessly pull you into a convincing wartime past, into a beautifully evoked Skye landscape, and into parts of southern England I now feel I know. And then, maybe while your imagination still reeling, she pulls you into the very heart of her characters.  From the first page I felt not just sympathy, but empathy with John Norman and Felicity. I’m a slow reader normally, but I finished this book in two days.  At 323 pages, it still ended too soon for me.

  John Norman is the son of an island fisherman and Felicity is the only daughter of an embittered wealthy widower from London.  The elements, I thought, were all in place for a Romeo and Juliet scenario of thwarted love.  Class obstacles would daunt them! But neither of Shaw’s characters are your typical hero and heroine and defy stereotypes.  They are not beautiful, merely memorable. They do not fall in love instantly, steal kisses and struggle melodramatically against societal disapproval.  Instead, they meet briefly, mumble a few words, go fishing, then separate.  For the majority of the book, the narrative is not concerned with their relationship at all, and yet their separate story lines arch inevitably towards each other.

  And what happens to them?  I won’t say, but I can tell you this – it’s not what you think. Shaw doesn’t overtly manipulate readerly emotions, and yet I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed being misled in a book so much before. Perhaps it’s because her protagonists are just weird enough to feel real, and I cared about them. 

  To my mind, this makes Shaw a kind of magician. The publishers may have missed a marketing trick with their ill-chosen cover, but at least they had the sense to print the book.

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