A dark yet elegant work of literary fiction, the debut novel from Linda Anne Atterton is a hard-hitting story where themes and landscapes are just as important as character and plot.
The protagonist of Running On Sand
is Grace, a teenage girl whose home life is filled with dark secrets.
When Grace’s father dies she is left with a cold, uncaring mother, and clings to the love of her older brother, Chris. The pair’s deep bond runs deeper than sibling affection, and both are confused by the nature of their feelings toward one another.
Chris is the centre of Grace’s world, but when Grace’s mother remarries and her stepfather offers to pay for an expensive boarding school education she reluctantly lets him go, knowing that he must pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. Only two people know how lost Grace feels: her friend Robert and her stepfather.
But with her brother gone nobody guesses how vulnerable she will be. Left in the hands of a stepfather who will win and then abuse her trust, her life begins to feel like a nightmare which she can never wake up from.
A failed pregnancy leaves her mother more distant than ever, and Grace becomes closer to Robert. Their bond causes rifts with her brother, which in turn raises dangerous questions about the true nature of the siblings’ relationship.
When Grace becomes pregnant she realises how ruthless her stepfather is and looks to the sea to save her - with devastating consequences.
Only after facing her worst nightmare will she learn her real strength, and find her own dream. From the end of a love story which was doomed from the beginning, she must start again and find a way to believe in herself.
This poetic, poignant and powerful drama puts the reader on a balcony which, though it feels too close at times, draws you into a richly rewarding story that champions the strength and resilience of the human spirit in overcoming seemingly unbearable trials.
In addition to being an award-winning poet, the author is a clinical psychologist by profession, and she has drawn on her own experiences in helping patients deal with emotional trauma to create characters and situations that feel heartbreakingly real.
But the plot is only half the story. Running On Sand mainly takes place in the coastal village of Sea Palling, Norfolk, and the seaside setting, vividly portrayed by the Norfolk-based author, is key to the themes of the book.
Just like works by a wealth of authors from Herman Melville to Virginia Woolf before her, Atterton uses the primal force of the sea as a striking and rich metaphor. It is protection and escape, loss and destruction; an ally and foe in the whirlpool relationships that Grace becomes embroiled in.
The backdrop is also richly symbolic. The volatile and windswept coast adds to the sense of drama and emphasises the ill-winds that rise throughout the story. Yet these inevitable forces ultimately leave Grace battered but not broken, and with the strength to build a course between the future and the past.
Atterton writes with enormous sympathy for her central characters, and in Grace and Chris has created complex figures, whose situation is fraught with uncomfortable tension.
The novel is challenging and pulls no punches, but has a delicate and skilled touch that brings a satisfying and uplifting resolution to a story that is more beautiful than its dark subject matter might suggest.
Running On Sand by Linda Anne Atterton is out now, priced £17.07 in paperback and £4.91 as an eBook.