Book review

Undercurrents by June Oldham (1998)

Imagine an intense heatwave and drought. The parched earth is cracked and dust dry. Rivers and springs are exhausted. At the local reservoir the water level is sinking so low that the past is beginning to show. Tension is running high among the locals as they examine their consciences. For when the dam and reservoir were built, the little community in the valley was deliberately submerged, supposedly for all time.

Well, just what was hidden, along with the drowned cottages and church? Here we have a wall of silence from the locals. And a girl, an outsider, sleeping rough in the old barn, who desperately needs to know.

And there's Fergal. He arrives at the old farm along with his mother who is to look after bedridden Mrs Helliwell for the sweltering month of August. His mother is pleased to have him along:

'It's a great help to have someone to talk it over with, Fergal.'
He was relieved that she didn't say anything like: 'I can count on you,' or 'you're so dependable.' He attracted that kind of comment. On his school reports he was usually summed up as: Overall, a good, steady worker and a reliable member of the class. He wished people could find other descriptions for him, descriptions that made him sound rather less boring. He would love to shake them all up, find something to do that shocked them. But nothing ever came along. He was stuck with his temperament, born with it. People seemed to lean on him, came to him when they were in a mess or wanted some help. He could hardly say, 'I don't want to know, mate. Get lost!' Dependable Fergal.

Poor Fergal. He is troubled by self-doubt from an earlier 'incident in the river' when he was unable to rescue his friend. Hugging his misery to himself, he cannot confide to anyone how blameworthy he feels. And people really do seem to expect a lot from Fergal. He is given all the heavy work because he's big and strong. Perhaps they treat him as though he were older than he really is, because of his size, though that proves to be an advantage when he meets Alex, from the barn. Alex is an A level student, two or three years older than Fergal, and like Mrs Helliwell, she is waiting for the water in the reservoir to retreat a little further.

Now Fergal can see that Mrs Helliwell is not at ease with the past. Why else would she ask him to deliver a wreath to the lonely hillside grave overlooking the reservoir, just at this time when the old church is creeping out of the water? But what is Alex's interest in the same grave? Why should she leave a posy of meadow flowers there? Whatever happened must have happened before her time.

This is a quiet, tense book, pervaded by heat haze and the mysterious silence of the local people. It seems they have a lot to answer for.

A very satisfying read.

What can I read next?

June Oldham has written other books which you might like to look at:

  • Foundling
  • Escape

You might like to look at this one by David Belbin:

Or this one by Roger J Green:

Any book by Susan Gates is likely to interest you:

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Undercurrents features in these lists: