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The match flared in the darkness, his eyes watched me above the single steady flame..

I cannot recall the last time a scene from a book has so thoroughly chilled me to the bone (and there were plenty more besides), but you’ll have to read it for yourself to see what I’m talking about – I’m not telling! Set in Ireland in the latter part of the 19C, Howatch recounts three generations of the wealthy English de Salis family in six separate “books”, each of those being in the first person POV of different characters.

Edward de Salis visits his distant cousins the Marriotts in New York and brings a much younger Marguerite home as his bride. Despite the great difference in their ages, the two are well matched and soon have children of their own to add to Edward’s brood from his first marriage. When Edward’s eldest son Patrick inherits the de Salis lands and fortune, he marries Marguerite’s niece Sarah and upon their return from New York they live in London until their lavish lifestyle and Patrick’s gambling brings it to a screeching halt. Forced to economize, Sarah and Patrick start life fresh at Cashelmara but Edward comes under the influence of childhood friend Derry Stranahan.

Derry’s unnatural hold over Patrick continues to grow and leads to clashes in his marriage and with his Irish tenants until Derry’s fate is sealed during an Irish riot. Eventually Sarah finds her hopes to repair the marriage and run a profitable estate are hindered once again by Patrick’s too close relationship with another man – Hugh McGowan. Sarah soon finds herself an unwilling member of a triangle that for the sake of her children she endures until……well you know I don’t tell all.

Howatch takes the reader on quite ride in this one as Sarah’s desperate situation forces her to make an unwise alliance of her own until she can return to Cashelmara – although that return sets in place another set of circumstances leading to a death by natural causes – or is there something more going on here? If this is sounding a bit like you’ve heard this story before, you’re probably right. Howatch based her characters on the lives of England’s first three Edwards and that’s really half the fun of reading this novel. Can you spot Piers Gaveston? Hugh Despenser? Isabella and her lover Mortimer?

All in all a near perfect read, the scenes between Patrick, Sarah and Hugh were downright bone chilling, let alone the effects of the famine on the Irish tenants. Darn near unputdownable, although the last hundred or so pages did slow down just a tad, and the ending itself just a bit too abrupt – although at 700 pages enough was probably enough. 4.5/5 stars and the story of the third “Edward” continues in Wheel of Fortune – but with entirely different characters.