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The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant - Book Review

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by Gillian Ching (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer living in Brisbane who loves exploring quirky places with my dog. Join me on my quest to find, experience, and share fun things to do and interesting places to go.
Published July 2nd 2019
A Story of Love, Letters and Longing
Mental health, and family history, alongside love and adventure form the cornerstone to the wonderful new Australian novel The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant.

Released in 2019, author Kayte Nunn has beautifully crafted the story of Esther Durrant, a woman who in the 1950s in England takes what she thinks is a vacation with her husband, John, to a desolate, remote Island off the coast after suffering from post-natal depression. She is tormented by the loss and grief of her second young son Samuel, where she describes the "demons of our own making as the most fearsome adversaries."

Photo courtesy The Nile


After arriving on the island, she is unwittingly bound in a straight jacket and admitted by John to what turns out to be a mental asylum under the care of Dr Richard Cresswell. She soon horrifyingly realises that her husband has left her on the "ridiculous speck of land in the middle of the sea." Dr Cresswell, a long time friend of John Durrant is a caring psychiatrist specialising in treating soldiers of war and considered a pioneer in his field and may hold the answer to Esther's recovery.

Steilacoon Mental Asylum - an historic facility inspiring the book


Fast forward to 2018 and 35 year old Australian Research Scientist Rachel Parker from Sydney takes an assignment to the small island off Penzane to study the marine sciences of the island. Fiercely independent and with no desire to make ties to any person or place, Rachel is drawn to the adventure of exploring another new part of the world where she can be further isolated from her own fear of connection.

Meanwhile back in London in 2018, Eve is helping her Grandmother, a now 90 year old respected mountaineer Esther Durrant, write her autobiography.

The lives of the three women intersect when Rachel Parker finds a series of love letters on the now almost abandoned site of the mental Institution written to Esther Durrant from the 1950s. Rachel sets off on a personal endeavour to find Esther and return the letters to her and without realising that she is about to uncover a story of love lost, love gained and choices made choices which equally apply as much as Esther as to herself.

The book, while includes significant male characters (particularly those fellow patients at the hospital and an instantly likable and soft hearted paramedic in the town), is overshadowed by the strength, intelligence and resilience of the strong female voices in the story.

In the beginning, I found it difficult to read of Esther's sense of betrayal by her husband, her longing to be re-united with her surviving son Teddy and the pain of her loss but soon admired her inner beauty, warmth, exquisite compassion and quiet curiosity which were never far from the pages.

While set largely in England, I also enjoyed the Australian voice of Rachel "Nosey" Parker and admired her tenacity and cheered as she let down to guard to let life and love run through her veins.

The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant is filled with wonderful metaphors, stunning descriptions, particularly of the island where we almost smell the scent of the flowers and feel the crisp salt of the ocean on our skin. There are twists, yes, and Kayte Nunn ties them all up so neatly to not leave us guessing too much to the ongoing lives of the central characters. And there was something wonderfully fulfilling about that.

This is undoubtedly the latest book to enter my favourite books of all time list (not an easy list to make). It was with a certain feeling of sadness when I had turned the last of the 375 pages of this novel, for I knew it would no longer greet me in the mornings on my side table in the same way where I yearned to discover the unfolding of Esther's story.

I can only encourage others to leap boundlessly into its pages and discover the story behind The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant which will can offer you strength, uplift your spirits and give you hope that adventure, new beginning and deep, connected love never dies.

About the Author Kayte Nunn
Kayte Nunn is a freelance book, magazine and web editor and the former editor of Gourmet Traveller WINE magazine. Her first novel, Rose's Vintage, was published in 2016, and Angel's Share in 2017. She is also the author of the highly acclaimed The Botanist's Daughter. The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant is her latest release and is based in part on the story of her Great Grandmother who was admitted to a mental health institution but sadly never released.

Photo courtesy Waltzing More Than Matilda


She believes that "stories circulate in the ether and if you are receptive, they will tap you on the shoulder and start whispering in your ear. The writer's job is then to do the story justice." And do them justice she does.

Kayte lives in the Northern Rivers of NSW and is the mother to two girls.
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