Richard Benson was tempted to turn his family history into a novel but stuck with the facts instead. Good decision. This rare and finely tempered work serves up a devastating combination of memory and imagination. What Benson was actually told by family members about life in the Dearne Valley we will never know. But you sense the story’s authenticity right from the start, in the unlikely surroundings of a Spiritualist meeting in a dowdy hall in Shirebrook in 1907. Two women and four men stand behind chairs facing a vaguely expectant crowd. They are supposed to be making contact with the dead but Annie and Walter make contact with each other instead. Gertrude Winifred Parkin, their first child, arrives on 12 December 1909.
At the age of 19, Winnie, as she likes to be called, meets Harry Hollingworth at a dance. Like his father, and her father, and almost every other man at Goldthorpe Welfare Hall that evening, Harry is a coal miner. Benson writes freshly and originally about lives that did not always seem fresh or new, from the outside at least, and he takes us through the hall