This was the final one of my chosen rereads for 2013, though it did slip over into 2014. A chunky, labyrinthine Victorian pastiche it is perfect for reading on cold winter nights. It's a book you have to throw yourself into wholeheartedly, if you just read a couple of pages at a time it would be very difficult to follow the story. And it would probably take you the rest of your life to finish it. I thought I didn't remember any of it, but as I got into it I realised that it was coming back to me.
The story concerns John Huffam who at the beginning of the novel is a young boy living with his mother in an English village. They are not wealthy, but live comfortably. However John is aware that his mother has secrets. She is very protective of him and he is allowed very little freedom. They don't seem to have any friends and strangers to their door are treated with suspicion and even fear.
The death of a relative John has never even met sets off a train of events which will radically alter John's life. This relative was paying John's mother an allowance and without it seems that they will sink inexorably into poverty. In early Victorian times of course this was a terrifying prospect, as it probably meant the workhouse, or death. During this time John discovers his mother's secret; a document which is in his mother's possession which could prove vital in establishing the heir to a disputed fortune. John could be the heir, but so could other people, some of whom are extremely ruthless.
John is thrust into a life for which he is ill-prepared. He has to live by his wits and doesn't know who to trust. Sometimes it is pure luck that keeps him alive. It seems that his life is to be a tragedy. But somehow he keeps going, determined to live.
At almost 1,200 pages it is a book that I find impossible to summarise. But if you've got the time to set aside for it, I would recommend it as an engrossing story.