Review: Pleasures with Rough Strife by JL Merrow

One chilly night just before Christmas in 1922, eighteen-year-old poacher Danny Costessey comes to regret his impulse to climb a tree to fetch some mistletoe for his mother when he falls, breaking his leg. He doesn’t expect his luck to change when he is found by the furious gamekeeper who’s long hated his family. However, when he is taken to the manor house, the reclusive owner, Philip Luccombe, takes an interest in Danny rather than condemning him for his actions, and it surprises them both when that interest turns into something more.

Review by Jean Cox

Pleasures With Rough Strife is a short (around 13000 words) novella, set in the early 1920’s, a world where the aftermath of both WWI and the Spanish flu are keenly felt and the traditional deliniation of role of master and servants has yet to disintegrate.

JL Merrow depicts the world well, with elegant prose and dialogue. Not for her the clunky references to current events in order to set the era. She writes simply, cleanly and effectively – an economy with words that other writers could take note of. I love the humour in her work and the little affectionate nudges towards other stories – the appearance in this one of a butler called Standish made me smile. The origins of some of the names amused me too; I believe the author hails from the Isle of Wight, so having a character called Luccombe was a neat touch. That’s the sort of thing this reader appreciates.

In such a short story, it’s hard to discuss the plot without major spoilers, so bear with me on the sparcity of detail. Daniel Costessey poaches on the local estate, to help support his widowed mother and siblings. Drayton (the gamekeeper and enemy of the Costissey family) finds him injured and unexpectedly takes him to the owner’s house to recover. Philip Luccombe has become a recluse, pining for a lost love and being protected by his staff, including the formidable butler Standish. Two of these characters find a relationship developing, a relationship that crosses more than just social boundaries.

Plus points:

Apart from the general quality of writing, the story moves along at a good pace, the characters are well drawn, and the setting appeals to those of us who love early twentieth century England, a time of loss and wistful remembrance. Fans of hurt and comfort based stories will not be disappointed.

The depiction of era is consistent (not always something to be found in historical fiction) and the pervading sense of Christmastide, hope in the darkness, works well.

Minus points:

The lack of structure; at novella length, the tale pans out in a series of short scenes, some of them very short. This led at times to a sense of the story being a bit too fractured.

It was also a touch predictable–I’ve read a number of JL Merrow’s stories and what I’ve appreciated is her ability to produce the unexpected (her wonderful story in I Do Two is a case in point). I kept waiting for that here and it didn’t happen.

For what it is–a seasonal short–Pleasures with Rough Strife is perfectly fine and as a historical romance it’s well written. I just wish it had shown some more of the trademark Merrow touches.

Author’s Website

Buy at Dreamspinner Press

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