A delicately balanced novel of childhood secrets, hidden treasure and the lengths people will go to in order to protect – or discover – what they deem valuable.
The Margate Shell Grotto really exists: a serpentine corridor decorated in swirling patterns using 50 varieties of shell, and whoever made it created an enigma that has puzzled historians and speliologists for generations. Though it has been suggested that the cave might be Phoenician in origin, the fact that most of the iconography is Egyptian and Eastern suggests a more recent, 19th century origin.
Fanny Newlove is new to Margate, the daughter of Evangelist parents and spurned by the local children as being from the 'sheers' – here, anywhere north of London is considered foreign territory. When her brother finds an entrance to a hidden grotto on land their father has been advised to buy, the discovery sets into motion events that will rock this outsider family.
The shells on the walls and the elaborate altar suggest a religious function – so why do the locals speak of buried treasure? And why does dour young writing master Davidson condemn shells as daemonic, upsetting Fanny's father's Christian sensibilities by invoking the Kabbalah's 'realm of shells', the basest plane of physical existence and hellish world of hidden devils?
As different people stake their claim to the grotto – including Fanny's father, whose principles have been outweighed by the lure of tourist money – Fanny will learn that in the adult world, the nature of value is never simple.
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'This unusual novel paints an evocative picture of a life in a musty British seaside town in the 19th Century…The author conveys thoughtfully and with humour not only her young protagonist's hopes and fears but also the anachronistic outlook of her strict, god-fearing parents.' The Sunday Times
'This novel is very good indeed – confident and vividly energetic in a way that is entirely captivating…I cannot recommend this novel too highly.' Daily Telegraph
'Sonia Overall manages to tell a conventional story with remarkable originality…Her confidence is astonishing…It takes a writer of rare ability to produce a novel as good as this. She has made the grade.' Glasgow Herald
'While Fanny's voice, full of onomatopoeic accounts of household noise and incident, is thoroughly engaging, some of the best things here…are perhaps the least Victorian in character. It may be that Overall will eventually come to regard the 19th century as a constraint on her very considerable imagination.' The Independent
'An engrossing, accomplished tale of lost innocence which tiptoes elegantly towards its tragic denouement with genuine literary flair.' Easy LivingFrom the Author:
Q and A with Sonia Overall
What was it in the Margate junk shop that inspired you to write The Realm
The plan was to go to Margate to look in the junk shop for some furniture.
The junk shop was closed (well, it was Sunday) but I remembered hearing
about the grotto nearby and decided to have a look there instead. An hour
or so later, sitting on Broadstairs beach, I realised I had the plot of
another book. The main inspiration for the story was a short description,
in the grotto's museum, of Joshua Newlove's `discovery' of the grotto in
The image of a boy climbing down a rope with a lantern round his neck,
and finding an Aladdin's cave at the bottom, was where it all began.
What is the grotto like today?
The grotto now has a very careful owner, which has not always been the
case. The shells have sadly been covered with a layer of soot as a result
of the oil lamps used to light it in the past, which means much of their
colour is lost. Despite this, the mosaics are breathtakingly beautiful.
Whatever its purpose or provenance, the grotto is a treasure and well worth
visiting. There really is nothing else like it.
The sense of time and place comes through in the tiniest details such as
the rhymes the children sing or the excerpts Fanny reads out from the
Kentish Gazette. How do you do your historical research?
I approach research from the outside in. I began by reading about the murky
1830s, before Victoria but after George. It's an interesting embryonic
period. Writers and thinkers of the time are increasingly outspoken about
issues of poverty, education, rights and so on. There's a slide away from
Regency decadence and hedonism towards Victorian asceticism. William's
reign is like the hangover in between.
Historical detail comes from reading texts of the time as well as
modern biographies, histories and so on. I plundered the local studies
collections of Kent libraries for guidebooks and maps of the period, as
well as archives of the local newspaper. A trip to the Bethnal Green Museum
of Childhood was invaluable for detail on childhood games that Fanny and
her classmates would have played.
The Realm of Shells is told from Fanny's point of view: why did you choose
to write from a child's perspective?
Children are constantly overlooked and underestimated by adults, even by
their teachers and parents (both, in Fanny's case). Fanny is the youngest
in the family, and therefore best placed to be ignored, while noticing
everything the adults get up to. It takes someone like Captain Easter, who
needs to cover his tracks, to realise how observant she is. The
relationship between Easter as manipulator and Fanny as observer gave me
the central point of antagonism for the book.
Once I had worked out Fanny's character and role I had to write it in
her voice. I relished the challenge of writing in the present tense too - a
child's mind required that immediacy. It was also a good excuse to regress
Does she move from innocence to experience?
Fanny learns a lot about adult behaviour over the course of the book, as
any child of her age does. I don't think current notions of innocence would
have made much sense to the Newloves and their contemporaries. Besides,
children are much crueller, and cleverer, than we care to believe.
Fanny is constrained because she is a girl; her sisters and her mother are
used by men in different ways. Can you say a bit about gender in the book?
I didn't write the women in this book with any gender agenda. Having said
that, it's impossible to ignore nineteenth-century attitudes towards women.
The blanket view of the period is that women were considered by men as
either saints or whores, but the truth is always more complex than that, as
even the smallest research will show. The Newlove women certainly don't fit
this pattern, although their unconventional attitudes cause them problems.
Arabella is a businesswoman, and the older girls are expected to work and
study responsibly, and to be useful rather than ornamental. Fanny's father
believes that girls should be given a good education. He treats his wife as
an independent individual, and it is partly because of this that he expects
her to share responsibility for solving their problems with Easter, however
undignified or immoral.
`The realm of shells' is described by Mr Davidson as `the hidden world of
the demonic that exists about us, yet cannot be seen' but Fanny calls it a
`fairy palace'. Who is right?
Both of these characters describe the realm of shells in the way that makes
most sense to them. One doesn't necessarily preclude the other.
Fanny is keen to help George learn to read. Do you believe in the power of
Yes, very strongly. When Fanny teaches George to read she gives him a very
valuable tool, and those that disapprove do so because they are afraid of
how he, and people like him, might use it.
There are echoes of Jane Austen in the novel. Are you a fan of her work and
which other writers inspire you?
I love Austen. Underneath the romantic packaging she is a very shrewd
social commentator and deliciously acerbic. She never resorts to caricature
like Dickens, or preaches like George Eliot, but she stills manages to
expose the hypocrisy of her characters and the world they exist in. I'm
inspired by many different writers of fiction and non-fiction - too many to
mention without missing someone important out!
Your previous novel A Likeness was also set in the past. Will your next
book be a historical novel too?
My third book is a contemporary novel, but history plays an important role
in it. I'm very interested in how the past influences and affects us.
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