Michael Gray had a hard war. But unlike so many others, he came home. He joins and his sister and her family on their summer holiday in Porthkennack. They’ve come to this place since they were children, but Michael quickly discovers he can’t escape all of his ghosts. While out with his nephew, Michael stumbles across Harry Carter-Clemence, the younger brother of his ex-lover, Thomas. Thomas is dead, another casualty of the Great War, but he’s left his mark on Michael and all those around him.
Harry knows his brother left a complicated legacy and that the once close friendship between the Carter-Clemences and the Grays has suffered as a result. But with Michael back from the war, Harry offers up the chance to reconnect. Over a long summer as Michael and Harry grow closer, Thomas’ shadow threatens any future happiness they might share. Harry and the entire Gray family will have to confront the dead before Michael and Harry can have any hope of moving forward.
Count the Shells was something of a mixed bag. The characters are fairly strong and the relationship between Michael and his nephew Richard is captivating. But melodrama and Michael’s rather judgmental nature nearly derail the story.
All of the characters in Count the Shells are well defined and vivid in their development. It’s easy to imagine them all and aside from Michael’s rushing into an affair with Harry, their actions seem realistic. Richard is somewhat wiser than a child of his age would usually be, but he is a natural fit to the story and never feels like an overly precocious third wheel. The author has done an excellent job of setting up the novel and the first third of Count the Shells has the feel of a long summer holiday. It moves laconically, but not slowly, and the echo of a country attempting to heal from a terrible scar is evident.
Unfortunately, after a wonderful start, Count the Shells falls prey to a sensational plot. Instead of a story about two men healing from the past, as the set up implies, the book devolves into a tangled knot of adultery, betrayal, and family secrets. And if you like that kind of thing, then you’ll probably have no problem with Count the Shells. But I felt this aspect of the story just didn’t work. It seemed to have only loose connections to the first part of the book and never really resonated. Additionally, after Michael finds out about his sister and a family secret, he’s extremely judgmental of her and almost cruel. It makes him unlikable and, given the circumstances, there are times he comes off as hypocritical. Lastly, and this is just a pet peeve that I didn’t actually hold against the book in my review, there are too many sexual gags about cricket. It comes off as rather juvenile, as it drags out a single scene into something silly. And it doesn’t fit very well with either Harry or Michael’s nature.
Count the Shells is a well-written book with characters that are well defined, warts and all. But it has the feel of a soap opera and fails to capitalize on what should have been a powerful story of healing and love. If you don’t mind the melodrama and like a thoroughly English novel, then you might enjoy Count the Shells.