Published 3 February 2015 by William Morrow
From the author of the USA Today bestseller The Girl Who Came Home comes an unforgettable historical novel that tells the story of two long-lost sisters—orphaned flower sellers—and a young woman who is transformed by their experiences
“For little sister. . . . I will never stop looking for you.”
1876. Among the filth and depravity of Covent Garden’s flower markets, orphaned Irish sisters Flora and Rosie Flynn sell posies of violets and watercress to survive. It is a pitiful existence, made bearable only by each other’s presence. When they become separated, the decision of a desperate woman sets their lives on very different paths.
1912. Twenty-one-year-old Tilly Harper leaves the peace and beauty of her native Lake District for London to become assistant housemother at one of Mr. Shaw’s Training Homes for Watercress and Flower Girls. For years, the homes have cared for London’s orphaned and crippled flower girls, getting them off the streets. For Tilly, the appointment is a fresh start, a chance to leave her troubled past behind.
Soon after she arrives at the home, Tilly finds a notebook belonging to Flora Flynn. Hidden between the pages she finds dried flowers and a heartbreaking tale of loss and separation as Flora’s entries reveal how she never stopped looking for her lost sister. Tilly sets out to discover what happened to Rosie—but the search will not be easy. Full of twists and surprises, it leads the caring and determined young woman into unexpected places, including the depths of her own heart.
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Having loved Hazel’s debut novel, The Girl Who Came Home: A Novel of the Titanic (reviewed here), I was very much looking forward to this and I was lucky enough to win a signed copy in a competition run by the author. The story is inspired by true events which makes it an even more of a poignant read. My copy was a proof and not a finished one but it had beautiful black and white sketch drawings of flowers at the top of each new chapter page.
It is 1912 and 26 year old Tilly Harper leaves her home in the Lake District to become an assistant housemother at Shaw’s Training Homes for Watercress and Flower Girls, located in London and Clacton. Something dreadful has happened which drives a wedge between Tilly and her family and to get away from the stares and the gossip, Tilly moves to London.
When she arrives at the Home, she finds hidden in her room a notebook, written by a previous occupant, Florrie (Flora) Flynn. There is obviously heartbreak in the story and Tilly is intrigued and wants to find out more.
Crippled Flora and her blind little sister Rosie were flower seller girls, living in London in the late 1800’s. They were orphans and Flora is Rosie’s protector until one day when Rosie suddenly disappears. Flora is heartbroken and it is extracts from her notebook that form the basis of the story, and which moves Tilly so much.
For young girls such as Flora and Rosie, orphaned and who lived in poverty, life in London was terrifying and brutal, they made pennies from selling their flowers and watercress and were often barefoot, cold, hungry and homeless. It was thanks to men like Albert Shaw (in reality a Victorian philanthropist called John Groom) who established the training home and who took in some of these young girls that they managed to survive. Flora Flynn was lucky to have been found by Albert Shaw, along with so many other young girls who found themselves being cared for in a warm and safe environment, earning a wage, albeit working for long hours but without the danger of living on the streets. Many of the girls were crippled or disabled, either by loss of limbs or blindness and these young girls found themselves learning a trade and for the first time in their lives made to feel worthwhile. They were given the task of making many thousands of artificial roses (to be known as Alexandra Roses) for a charity fundraising event organized by Queen Alexandra – a charity which still continues to this day.
Hazel Gaynor has done a wonderful job of capturing the poverty and the hardship suffered by the poorest and most vulnerable without being overly sentimental. The descriptions of both the sights and sounds of London streets and the people are so vivid and realistic. There are also characters forming an integral part of the story, who are at the other end of the social scale and who live in luxury and the story has been constructed in such a way that the overlap is seamless.
Tilly was a wonderful character that you simply have to take to your heart and as the story progresses, we find out about her back story and why she had to leave her family. As she gets used to her new life and begins to care for the girls in her charge, she grows in strength and confidence and in her quest to try and find out what happened to little Rosie, she realizes just how important family is, no matter how difficult the circumstances.
There is a little bit of everything in this story which I am sure fans of historical fiction will love. As well as the story centered around the flower girls and the mystery surrounding Rosie’s disappearance, there is romance and also a slight paranormal aspect – which, even for someone as picky as me, has been done very subtly and does add to the atmosphere and intrigue.
This is a beautifully written story which at times was absolutely heart wrenching. However it was also one of hope and overall it was an uplifting story which made me appreciate the comfortable life I have and made me realise just how important Homes such as these were. Hazel clearly has a wonderful talent for historical fiction and I absolutely loved this book. I do so hope there is more to come from this author, her future books will certainly be on my wishlist.
If you are interested in finding out more:
I received a duplicate (new and unread) proof copy and have decided to run a giveaway to share this wonderful book. To enter, just leave a comment below and I will pick a winner at random. The giveaway will close at 6pm on Friday 8 May 2015.
Hazel Gaynor’s 2014 debut novel The Girl Who Came Home—A Novel of the Titanic was a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. A Memory of Violets is her second novel.
Hazel writes a popular guest blog ‘Carry on Writing’ for national Irish writing website writing.ie and contributes regular feature articles for the site, interviewing authors such as Philippa Gregory, Sebastian Faulks, Cheryl Strayed, Rachel Joyce and Jo Baker, among others.
Hazel was the recipient of the 2012 Cecil Day Lewis award for Emerging Writers and was selected by Library Journal as one of Ten Big Breakout Authors for 2015. She appeared as a guest speaker at the Romantic Novelists’ Association and Historical Novel Society annual conferences in 2014.
Originally from Yorkshire, England, Hazel now lives in Ireland with her husband and two children.