On Chapel Sands By Laura Cumming – A Review

Publisher: Chatto & Windus

Publication Date: 4th July 2019

This book was on my radar for a good while before it was published.  I found the premise of a small child being kidnapped from a beach in the late 1920’s and not having any memory of this event, extremely intriguing.  As most of you are aware, I don’t naturally gravitate towards non-fiction, it has to have a real pull to lure me in and this book certainly had that.

Laura Cumming’s mother Elizabeth (then know as Betty) was playing on the sands of Chapel Beach in Chapel St Leonards, Lincolnshire.  A carefree 3 year old whiling away an autumn afternoon with her mother Veda, enjoying the sands.  When Veda momentarily turns her attention away from little Betty, the unthinkable happens.  Betty is there one minute and quite literally gone the next.  Every parents nightmare had been realised for Veda.  Her husband George, a travelling salesman away on business is sent for and the police are informed (although interestingly not until the next day…).

A search for Betty ensues with the folk of the village joining in to locate this child who has disappeared into thin air.  Five days later she is found in a house, the next village along, dressed in a completely new set of clothes.

This strange event is then brushed under the carpet, and never spoken of again.  Little Betty is unaware it even happened to her, even some way into adulthood.  The people of Chapel St Leonard are very tight lipped about the whole disappearance and don’t speak of it in the years that ensue.

When Elizabeth and her daughter Laura do find out about the kidnap, it is Laura who is desperate to uncover what happened.  Her mother is far more apprehensive and is reticent to probe any further.  However, for Laura’s 21st birthday, Elizabeth gives her the gift of writing about her early life, her childhood years with Veda and George and the difficult and isolating life she led under George’s domineering influence.

With the help of her Mother’s writing, Laura starts to construct a picture of what family life was like for Betty, how she was almost secluded away by her parents and not permitted to mix with many people in the village.  We learn of George’s foul temper and Veda’s quiet, stoical acceptance of this.  Further evidence to substantiate Betty’s childhood narrative is presented by way of family photographs taken at the time.  Sepia toned images of a young Betty with George, out on the sands. A young Betty being told to pose for certain images and look happy, when she felt anything but. 

I really enjoyed looking at these family images which Laura disects in minute detail.  Poring over the light, the background location, the clothing, the expressions on the faces of those framed and captured in the images, and even speculating over who is behind the camera.  I find old photographs really fascinating and have often had a good rummage through boxes and boxes of old black and white photo’s at vintage fairs, so I really did relish this element of the book.

As the mystery of that day in 1929 unravels, Laura and her mother travel back to Chapel to see if they can discern from the surviving villagers and their descendants what actually happened.  What they encounter is a sweeping barrier against them, people who are  extremely reluctant to give away any details. 

However, bit by bit a picture of Betty’s life is revealed through photographs, nuggets of word of mouth tales and documentation and the secret that has been long buried finally comes to the fore.

This book is so much more than just a memoir or a simple family mystery to solve.  It is a very accomplished social commentary covering village life and the changing landscape at the time.

Laura often uses art to tell her Mother’s story, due to her Mother being an artist and Laura herself being an art writer, and whilst this is an understandable route for Laura to take, I didn’t always gel with these parts of the book.

You can feel in Laura’s writing how determined she was to find out about what had happened to her mother and how important it was to her own heritage. Knowing where you came from, who loved and cared for you and where you belong in a family is so important. Laura helps her mother to unravel her complex early life with such love and tenacity.

I really was drawn in by this memoir. It is a fascinating insight into family secrets which were always meant to be kept hidden. The final page gave me a little shiver.

I would thoroughly recommend it.

Thank you to the publisher for my review copy.

See you soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

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