Hester & Harriet look like they’re on track for another bog standard Christmas at The Laurels, the small cottage the two widowed sisters share in a small, reasonably uneventful English village.
Invited to cousin George’s home where they will endure his wife Isabelle’s ghastly cooking and their insufferably insolent 15 year old son Ben, they are working on an excuse to get out of attending when on Christmas morning itself, with the clock ticking down to a time when excuses will be all but redundant they notice something odd at the old, rarely-used bus shelter neat their home.
In the tangle of blankets and discarded books, usually occupied by their itinerant friend Finbar, a learned man who following a breakdown, took to a life on the road, they find a waif-like young Belarussian woman called Daria and her baby son Milo, hiding out, as it turns out, not just from the cold but a series of people on the look out for them.
Of course, at the time that Hester, queen of the kitchen and prone to a prickly disposition, and Harriet, ex-school teacher and the kindlier though sometimes more gullible one of the two, see nothing but a young woman in need of warmth, food and shelter, and their ticket away from the hell that is Christmas with George and Isabelle (who are by the way quite lovely people; just not great hosts).
What unfolds over the week leading up to New Year’s Eve is a series of events so out of the realm of the sisters’ normal quite existence, one defined by gardening, reading and a few too home-baked biscuits – they are forever trying to lose weight and failing, their love of fine food and wine too strong – that it causes them to realise that they have been missing far more than they realised.
Daria, as it turns out, is a political refugee of sorts, and her son the product of an ill-judged one night stand with her employer, and together they are on the run from not only the good intentions of this man and his now-reconciled wife but a host of other people, all with their own particular axe to grind.
As the true import of Daria’s predicament, one created of misunderstanding and exploitation rather than any egregious act on the young girl’s behalf, becomes clear to Hester & Harriet, they upend their normal staid routine to get to the bottom of things and give Daria the life she deserves, inadvertently giving themselves a completely change of life too.
In the middle of all this turmoil comes Ben, angry with his parents and wanting some time out, and his presence, proves instrumental, not just to Hester & Harriet but to Daria with whom he becomes quite close.
Hester & Harriet is a delightful book that nicely balances an ever growing mystery that doesn’t so much become deadly and dangerous as ever more perplexing and confounding until finally all is revealed.
In the lead-up to that resolution, which unfolds with the neat ending of an Agatha Christie novel where loose ends are tied up, the baddies get their just desserts and the world is set right again, even if it will never (welcomingly) look the same again, we’re treated to the joy of reading about two sisters who may be in a rut but are as unconventional and spirited as they come.
What the events of the book teach them is they have fallen into a genteel routine following the deaths of their husbands that makes precious little allowance for any kind of excitement.
Like most people who don’t know what they’re missing until it’s staring them right in the face, or in Hester and Harriet’s case until it’s living and eating in their now-snug home, they ultimately embrace the great changes wrought but not before they have to wrestle with a great many issues and obstacles completely outside of their usual purview.
Spiers does a brilliant job of giving readers a version of life in an English village that ticks many of the boxes of those who like their villagers quirky and their village even more so without reducing them to some sort of cartoon caricature.
And while Hester and Harriet may be quirky in some ways, they are largely self-aware, brave, generous ladies who will brook no interference in getting to the root of something, and are anything but some sort of comical props for a wider story.
It’s their immense likability that is the key to the book which centres on the idea that a good shake-up may be just what most people are looking for, even if it’s not necessarily what they set out to do when they help someone else.
The use of lovely warm language, and some deliciously long words which speak to the mindset of Hester & Harriet, who gutsy they may be still like things done a certain way, as Ben particularly finds out over the course of their stay.
Spending time with these two delightful women and their unexpectedly large brood of new “family” members is a pleasure from start to finish, a lively blend of mystery, warmth, irascibility and fun.