James Long's Ferney is technically a time-slip novel, but it may be better to call it a time-blend, since the transitions are that seamless. The main storyline takes place in contemporary times, with episodes taking the main characters (and the reader) back through 1,300 years of carefully layered history. In Ferney, the past doesn't lie silently. Rather, it catches you unaware, slowly emerging from where it was long hidden until you're forced to acknowledge its presence.
Gally Martin has been experiencing nightmares ever since she was a little girl -- ones that wake her in the middle of the night, sobbing, with a dreadful fear of the mysterious "burnman" and "boilman." To provide her with a place of sanctuary, her husband Mike agrees to their purchase of a decrepit cottage in the ancient Somerset village of Penselwood. They quickly become acquainted with their elderly neighbor, Ferney Miller, who has spent the past 57 years trying to solve the mystery of his wife's disappearance back in 1933. Gally feels drawn to Ferney from the moment they meet. Why does he look at her so strangely? How does he know so much about her?
Ferney reveals that much of what he knows about Penselwood has come down to him and other villagers through folk memories... stories handed down by parents to their children over generations. After all, he says, "History's much shorter than people think." A mere five lifetimes separate Henry VIII's era from his. Mike, a by-the-books history professor, is very skeptical of Ferney's conclusions, but Gally finds herself captivated by the concept. As her friendship with Ferney deepens, she realizes that Penselwood's history has suddenly become more personal, and the knowledge starts causing problems with her marriage. She remembers things she has no rational way of knowing.
Fans of time-slips may think they know where this is heading, but it's more complex than that. Saying more would be giving too much away. Ferney is definitely an atmospheric book -- you can feel the authenticity of the bucolic landscape seeping in as you read -- but also a very clever one. It conveys that history is more than just all around us; it's a very part of who we are. The past leaves footprints and patterns that linger, and the effect can be discomfiting. For the Amazon reviewers who didn't get the ending, which is both perfect and utterly wrenching, all I can say is you missed the point of the book.
It's hard to compare Ferney to other novels, but if you enjoy the works of Barbara Erskine and Susanna Kearsley, you'll want to read this one too. It also reminded me somewhat of Karen Maitland's Company of Liars, since both explore how ordinary people from history interpreted their world.
James Long's Ferney was first published by HarperCollins (UK) in 1998, and Bantam (US) in 1999. This was written up as part of Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge.