“A highly skilful uncovering of family secrets.” The Guardian

I found On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming an absorbing and intriguing book. It is a blend of memoir and detective story, which was published last year to great acclaim.

Betty Elston (originally called Grace) is kidnapped from the beach at Chapel St. Leonards on the Lincolnshire coast in the autumn of 1929. After 5 days she is discovered safe and well. She is 3 years old and will remember nothing of this event, or her life before. And nobody ever speaks of this again.

Decades later her daughter, Laura Cumming, delves into her mother’s early life (her mother now calls herself Elizabeth) using old family photographs, letters and other items to unlock the mystery.

What she uncovers is a conspiracy of silence involving the whole community and one that takes some resolving. She intersperses this with details of her mother’s life through the years, sometimes in her mother’s own words – her unhappy, solitary childhood and adolescence, her escape to art college and then her career and marriage.

It is revealed that Betty lived with George and Veda Elston as their adopted daughter. However, George is her real father, and her real mother, Hilda Blanchard, was forbidden from seeing her and had emigrated to Australia where she married and had two daughters. They appear at the end of the book when they visit England to track Hilda’s story and find their half-sister.

Laura Cumming also illustrates this story with the use of several paintings. At first I found this rather strange, but then realised that she was giving a depth to the story. Both her parents were artists and she is an art historian and the Observer’s art critic, so this was another way for her to get a handle on the events. And I actually loved the pictures, particularly the Bruegel. (The Kindle reproductions were not that good but I managed to find better images on the internet.)

This book was very moving – a many-sided human story, told with warmth and understanding. The Guardian review described it as “a love letter to her [Cumming’s] mother, whose warmth, articulacy and survival instincts shine through.” There are beautiful descriptions of the Lincolnshire coast, the flatlands and the huge beaches with interesting side stories about Butlins and the military in WW2. I thought it a wonderful book and give it 5-Stars.
Review by: Eve