Cover Image: Vita and the Birds

Vita and the Birds

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Another fantastic story by Polly Crosby. I loved the dual timeline narrative and the story drew me in from the first pages. I enjoyed her two previous books and will definitely recommend this one as well.

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Ever since The Illustrated Child which got me back into reading in a big way, I’ve anticipated Polly Crosby’s books which give me a sense of nostalgia even for lives not lived, and a touch of magic. This new novel did not disappoint. Thank you Polly, once again!

Thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for letting me read an advance copy of this book in exchange for my review.

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"Rumours had always abounded. Of marsh spirits and witches, of people gone mad. Of sucking mud and drowning men and bog bodies being preserved in peat. It was an ancient place, the reed field where the cathedral stood, dangerous long before the glass house was ever built."

Luminous, mesmerising, and hauntingly atmospheric, Vita and the Birds tells the story of two women whose lives are inextricably linked by decades-old secrets.

1938. Lady Vita Goldsborough lives an isolated and lonely life at the mercy of her cruel and controlling older brother, Audrey. But a chance meeting with local artist Dodie changes everything, and when the two become close Vita glimpses a possible chance of freedom.
1997. Eve Blakeney returns to the house on the coast where she spent her childhood summers to try and come to terms with her grief after her mother’s death. While there, Eve unexpectedly finds clues to a secret that will change everything she believed about her family.

Polly Crosby merges historical fiction and compelling mystery with eerie gothic elements and a dash of romance to create an extraordinary story that I never wanted to end. She took my breath away with her atmospheric, unnerving, and evocative prose, painting a picture with words that made me feel like I’d tumbled into the story like Alice tumbled into the rabbit hole. Themes of mental health, coercive control, friendship, desire, and female empowerment and agency are explored as Crosby peels away the layers of this complex mystery piece by piece. I was hypnotised and completely in her thrall; torn between a need to devour the book whole and wanting to read it forever..

"But the thing that had given me the most purpose, was the mystery of my family, caught up in the birdcage and the letters and the sketchbooks. And all of it, I realised, was linked to the Cathedral of the Marshes, the secrets entwined together like the trailing vines that grew inside it."

Rumours of madness and murder have surrounded the Goldsborough family for decades, and the Cathedral of the Marshes - built by Aubrey Goldsborough in the 1920s - is the local haunted house that teenagers dare each other to enter. The Goldsboroughs and the cathedral are inextricably linked to the Blakeney family through the friendship between Vita and Dodie, as well as the secret they shared. Told in dual timelines, we follow Vita and Dodie as their friendship blossoms in the past, while in the present her granddaughter begins to unveil the truth that will change everything. I have to mention that I really enjoyed the author’s decision to set this in the 90s as it was a nostalgia-fest for me and I loved being transported back to what feels like a simpler time.

The characters are all richly drawn and compelling, but the narrators both have a particular charisma that makes you root for them and care what happens to them. And while on the surface they couldn’t be more different - Vita is rich while Eve doesn’t have two pennies to rub together - we soon discover they have more in common than we thought. They are both trapped in cages just like Vita’s beloved birds. Vita’s cage is made from bars created by her cruel, vicious, and controlling older brother, Audrey, while Eve’s is made inside her own mind as she struggles with her mental health. But one of the most important ‘characters’ in this book isn’t a person. The Cathedral of the Marshes is at the heart of this story. Most of the time it looms menacing, dark and mysterious in the shadows, but there are times it is a sanctuary and an escape. It is a place long surrounded by local folklore and rumours of murders and missing children. And it’s this folklore, along with the vivid descriptions of the building and the feelings it conjures, that combine to make it feel alive; a sinister presence that permeates every page.

Lush, hypnotic, poignant, and unsettling, this gorgeously gothic story consumed me. An absolute masterpiece that you won’t forget.

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A beautiful written and brilliantly haunting masterpiece of a novel. Nothing I say would do it justice, I can only strongly recommend you read it. It's amazing

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Thank you so much for the advance copy of Vita and the Birds. A lush, evocative setting that draws the reader in is truly the star of this book. I found I wasn’t quite as engaged with the characters, but that said this is a beautiful read and superbly written. Thank you!

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1938: Lady Vita Goldsborough lives in the menacing shadow of her controlling older brother, Aubrey. But when she meets local artist Dodie Blakeney, the two women form a close bond, and Vita finally glimpses a chance to be free.

1997: Following the death of her mother, Eve Blakeney returns to the coast where she spent childhood summers with her beloved grandmother, Dodie. Eve hopes that the visit will help make sense of her grief. The last thing she expects to find is a bundle of letters that hint at the heart-breaking story of Dodie’s relationship with a woman named Vita, and a shattering secret that echoes through the decades.

What she discovers will overturn everything she thought she knew about her family – and change her life forever.

I’ve looked forward to the new Polly Crosby novel for a while, it was one of my most anticipated books of 2023. I love her writing so I gave myself a lovely sunny weekend to completely wallow in the story. It seemed fitting that I was outside, since nature plays a strong part in the novel both metaphorically and as an extra character that’s often more vivid than the inner spaces. Eve has felt adrift since her mum Angela died so her four brothers think it might be good for her to take a trip to the coast and clear out their grandmother’s studio. Grandmother Dodie was a painter and lived a fairly basic life in a small ramshackle studio just off the beach. Eve has fond memories of childhood holidays there, when her brothers would snuggle up with her like sleepy puppies on the studio floor at night. Close by is the strangely alluring Cathedral of the Marshes, a glass building so imposing it has the presence of such a holy building. Once, when she was a teenager, Eve had taken a dare to go into the cathedral with Elliot, one of the local boys. She remembers being terrified, but doesn’t remember much else about that night apart from seeing a painting standing on an easel. Strangely, it was a portrait of her and she ran out into the night, never to return. How will it feel to be back in a place that she has feared, but that still holds some of her best childhood memories? When she finds Dodie’s letters and reads of her relationship with Vita, she is plunged into a completely hidden part of her grandmother’s life.

This is a dual timeline novel, so through the letters we go back to the outbreak of WW2 and Dodie’s early years at the studio. She met one of her more notorious neighbours, Vita Goldsborough, resident of Goldsborough Hall and an owner of the glass cathedral. Vita and her brother Aubrey are the subject of gossip in the village. The stories are varied: Vita went mad and was put in a psychiatric hospital; Vita and Aubrey committed incest; they were to blame for ‘the vanishings’. They didn’t mix in the village and the stories around the siblings seemed to multiply and when a local girl vanished they were the first to be blamed by villagers. Strangely, as Eve arrives, a boy goes missing. It seems like an echo of the past, a foreshadowing, as if this is a thin place where memories and historical events seem close enough to touch. The physical sorting of her grandmother’s belongings is a simple enough task, she will just hire a skip, but when it comes to finding things that evoke memories and emotions they’re not so easily thrown away. Now Eve finds herself questioning the past and discovering things about this place and her beloved grandmother that she’d never imagined.

I thought this was a fascinating story highlighting women’s history and showing how much Victorian attitudes still prevailed in aristocratic society. The way Aubrey Goldsborough thinks feels around forty years out of date and the power he has over his sister we would now label as coercive control. Vita tries to explain to Dodie that his hold over her is so powerful he doesn’t have to force her, he simply has to tell her what to do and she obeys. He wants Vita to be respectable and only spend time with the right sort of people. Becoming friends with a bohemian artist like Dodie was definitely unexpected and she is the epitome of the wrong sort of company. Vita decides that Dodie must paint her portrait, something that her brother can’t really object to. Aubrey would like her to make a good marriage, but Vita’s interactions with men are fast and short-lived. Vita’s rebellions had to be passive aggressive – she gathers her jewels and keeps them in a box chained to the bottom of a pond in the glass cathedral. Hopefully, she can sell them without Aubrey knowing and have some financial freedom. She and Dodie hide in plain sight after Aubrey goes to war. They set up home in the cathedral, able to see everything around them, but thanks to the reed beds outside they are very unlikely to be seen. In another echo of her grandmother’s past, Eve meets an elderly lady in the village who asks to have her portrait painted. Eve isn’t usually a portrait painter, but can’t turn down the generous money offered for the work. She has the key to the cathedral and suggests they use it for their sitting, so Eve stands where her grandmother did many years before. What might this lady know about that time and her grandmother’s life?

The outside spaces seem to have an effect on Eve and I noticed a more natural, authentic part of her shine through. When she’s wild swimming or having a campfire on the beach with her brothers it feels like she belongs here. I was fascinated with how Polly plays with interior and exterior spaces, mirroring the parts of themselves her characters are revealing and concealing. Dodie’s studio has one glass side, leaving the whole living space open to view and her only concession to privacy is a screen where her models can undress. This is so in keeping with Dodie’s character, she is who she is and nothing is usually concealed. A beautiful detail comes when Eve is aware that putting the light on opens the space up to the outside like a stage set, but switching it off opens up the landscape outside. The cathedral is something of a paradox because I thought at first the glass would be very exposing, but Aubrey had designed it with living spaces that were kept private. I was imagining it like a Victorian glasshouse or orangery, very ornate with an almost tropical climate inside. The central ‘Turkish Room’ where Vita sits for her portrait has an otherworldly feel, with a smell of vegetation and rotting fruit. A large pool sits at the centre and church pews are placed around it upholstered with Turkish throws and pillows. There’s a sensuality to this space, the heavy warmth and the softness of pillows contrasts sharply with the glass. The room is hidden by the marsh reeds and it feels like a world apart, a feeling echoed by the ornamental bird cage engraved just for them. It holds Vita’s canaries, until one day they escape out through a hole in the roof. Yet they come back and visit Vita, eating out of her hand and filling the room with beautiful bird song. The name Eve finds scratched on the cage alongside that of Vita and Dodie should be no surprise. It’s a hope that person will return and bring a new generation back to the cathedral, represented by the flock of yellow and brown canaries Eve sees fly into the cathedral – the ancestors of those first two birds returning to their home.

As with previous novels, Polly really knows how to pile on the layers of mystery and create an undercurrent that’s quite unnerving: the painting that looks like Eve; the birdcage and the names engraved on it; the earrings Eve finds under the sink in the studio that she’s never seen her grandmother wear. Eve’s mind plays tricks on her, confused by the likeness between Vita and her grandmother, but also with herself. She’s still confused about that night when she was a teenager, when she went into the cathedral on a dare. Did she really hear a woman’s voice? Was she holding something when she ran away? Was it a shard of glass? As we move towards finding out what happened in the cathedral all those years ago the tension builds and I worried whether the two women would be safe from someone like Aubrey. Eve knows that he was found dead in the cathedral cut by a shard of glass, but was it suicide or murder? Whatever happened to Vita, someone her grandmother never talked about? There’s also the question of Eve’s mum Angela, born around the same time period but brought up by Dodie alone and has never known her father. As Goldsborough Hall was obliterated by a bomb during the war, only the cathedral remains and I wondered who owned it now? I was totally engrossed by this point and dishes went unwashed, the dog went unwalked and my other half, who knows when I’m lost in a story, kept me amply supplied with tea and toast. I do this strange thing when I’ve really enjoyed a book, I seem to hug it to my heart as if it can reach the characters inside. This was one of those books. It’s a beautiful hidden love story and an intriguing mystery as well, told with compassion and empathy.

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I was sent a copy of Vita and the Birds by Polly Crosby to read and review by NetGalley. I really enjoyed this novel, especially the sense of place with the Cathedral of the Marshes, which is totally made of glass. I thought the characters were well written and I thought that the dual timeline worked well. There were a few occasions where I thought the story was a little predictable but overall it is a great read – only just missing out on the full 5 stars for me.

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An excellent dual timeline family mystery novel that was well written and quite lovely to read. The vivid descriptions of ‘The cathedral of the marshes’, a glass building owned by the mysterious Goldsboroughs, Aubrey and his sister Vita, rumours of incest and possibly murder of missing children known as the vanishings. It’s slow paced but this worked well for me as the characters are allowed to be developed; Eve in the modern timeline, a young woman staying in her late grandmothers small studio cabin across from the cathedral, and Vita in the pre Second World War timeline, and her struggles against her controlling brother. And what a beautiful cover!

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What an utterly beautiful and enthralling read. So atmospheric, with such an intense sense of place and time: the Suffolk coastline feels as much of character as Vita, Eve, Dodie, and Aubrey. Full of carefully crafted twists and turns, it kept me on my toes as much as life did for Vita and Eve, whilst their stories were so seamlessly and artfully woven together, it never felt like grandmother and granddaughter were ever far from each other’s hearts. As perfect a novel as The Unravelling, which was one of my 2022 highlights, and I suspect this will be one of my 2023 highlights too.

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Although a slow burn, I thoroughly enjoyed this family mystery with a gothic feel. Told in duel timelines -Vita in 1938 and Eve in 1997, and set on the Suffolk coastline and marshes this book has a real ghostly haunting feel. As Eve discovers her grandmothers history memories of her own return of an evening that she has been hiding from and that have shaped her life so far. Some of the themes within the novel didn’t make comfortable reading, but I just couldn’t put this book down. I would thoroughly recommend. I don’t want to rehash the storyline as I believe this will spoil it for future readers, but you won’t be disappointed. Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for giving me the ARC of this novel in return for an honest review.

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Vita and the Birds was a skillfully written, atmospheric read set in Suffolk. I was taken in from the very first page, the spookiness and the mystery drawing me in. Crosby's ability to create a vivid dark and compelling picture shines through in this book too.

Similarly to The Unravelling (one of my favourite books of 2022), the story follows a dual timeline - one narrated by Vita in the past, and one by Eve in the present. Eve returns to Suffolk after losing her mother, trying to cope with the grief, immersing herself into her childhood beach hut/holiday home. But what Eve stumbles upon there is a net of secrets, leading her to discover things about her past that she never would have imagined.

The characters are deep and complex, the different strands of the story shining a light on many sides of their personalities, some known, some which they discover with the reader, making this book impossible to put down. I loved it and cannot wait to find out what Polly Crosby is up to next!

Thanks to Netgalley for the arc in exchange for an honest review.

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This story is atmospheric and immersive and kept me hooked from the beginning. I loved the setting and the dual time lines. There is a good mystery to keep readers engaged. The cover is also very lovely, which will make a good addition to any book collector's shelf!

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This was a wonderfully atmospheric read, and one that gave me a few shivers as the stories from the past were revealed.

The dual timeline centres around 2 fascinating female characters - Eve and Vita. Back in 1938 we are introduced to Vita, who lives with her very controlling brother Aubrey. You can't help but feel her sadness through the pages, and watch as she becomes close to a local artist where she finds some freedom and maybe a way out from the ever watchful eyes of her brother.

And in the present we follow Eve who is returning to Suffolk after the devastating loss of her mother, and is looking to find peace in the world again as her life isn't working out as planned. The more she is jolted by the memories of returning and the letters she finds from the past, set her on a new journey of discovery.

The female characters in this were wonderful. There were so many strands to the story, and I loved the mysteries and even the rather unsettling feelings of lives being so restricted by so called loved ones. The setting really lent itself well to adding to the emotion of things and I was just completely swept up in the drama. Highly recommended!!

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Vita and the Birds is a vivid, mysterious and compelling read filled with intrigue.

I was engrossed in Polly Crosby’s third novel from the first sentence. Her way with words is incredibly evocative. There’s so much detail and there’s a completely engaging feel as she brings the story to life.

The novel begins with Eve in 1989 and shifts to Vita 1938. The dual narrative continues across the decades, skipping to 1997. This continuous weave back and forth was really compelling. I loved getting to know each character and the timelines of past and present.

Eve and Vita are both incredible characters and I was drawn to them both. Their personalities, their history, their accounts and their situations are both intriguing and filled with mystery. I loved that the more the novel progressed, the more snippets about each of them were revealed. So many questions that you slowly gain answers to and they gripped me to the page as I flew through the book.

The flip of a coin quirk that Eve is so fond of was a real asset to the story and I found myself anxiously hoping she got the right flip in order to achieve whatever it was she wanted an answer to. I felt like this gave an insight into her and how she dealt with things through the novel and I enjoyed watching her character change.

I found it truly fascinating to follow the area and it’s changes across the decades. Comparisons and alterations are a plenty and the focal point of this was the incredible Cathedral of the Marshes. Such a wonderfully described building in all it’s states and such a focal point to the novel. The sea and water are also beautifully poignant and I enjoyed the vivid imagery of these places and scenes in all their glory.

The storyline itself was fascinating and I was really invested in the happenings and the mystery, there is so much going on. I felt apart of their world and thoroughly captivated, especially by the birds, their significance and presence.

Tragic yet uplifting, infuriating yet alluring… This book was full of emotions and I enjoyed every bit!

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This book was a moody mystery and a bit of a slow burn. The point of view alternates between two women living in different time periods — Vita in the 30s and Eve in the 90s. Eve is on a quest to understand why there's an old birdcage with her mother's name on it, and in the process learns a lot about her family and a series of ghastly events that took place long ago. The atmospheric writing was effective; it was easy to picture myself in the eerie marshes or the old mansion no matter where in the story we were.

I was able to predict the ending of the mystery to some extent about halfway through the book, but that didn't dampen my enjoyment of the story. Aside from the mystery, this story had themes of grief, longing, and understanding one's own purpose and place in the world.

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his novel follows, three generations of women, all linked by their association, with a strange glasshouse like building built in the reedbeds of the British seaside
We meet the main narrator who returns to her grandmothers seaside painting retreat to sort the property prior to putting it on the market as she goes through her grandmothers belongings. She becomes aware of a relationship that happened in the 1930s between her grandmother and an aristocratic woman from the local stately home.
The novel becomes quite complicated and did lose me in places, but revolves around these three women who are all artists.

The novel does look at some potentially triggering situations, including the way that men controlled women in the past. One of the characters has a very controlling older brother who is severely limits, her freedom resulting in her spending time in a psychiatric hospital. The freedom of women, particularly in the nineteen thirties to live their lives as they felt right is covered and difference between men and women’s experiences was very marked

The setting is creepy with an abandoned building being slowly taken over by the reedbeds, leading to a creepy Gothic feeling to parts of the novel.
Gradually find out more about these women’s relationships, and there is an interesting twist at the end
He also has a clear easily read prose style Found the writing to be very visual and thought that this might make a very beautiful film.

Published on the 25th of May 2023 by HQ books
This review will appear on NetGalley, UK, good reads and on my book blog,

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A beautiful book cover and an intriguing, enigmatic title meant that I was already hooked by this new release, written by local writer, Polly Crosby. Then I heard that Blythburgh in Suffolk was the inspiration for the setting for this story.

This is Polly's third novel and I am sorry to say that I haven't yet read her earlier books - though I will be looking them up very soon.

The story takes place over two timelines. In 1938 Lady Vita Goldsborough's life is confined by the demands and restrictions of her older brother, Aubrey, until she meets a local painter Dodie Blakeney who offers her a chance to escape.

In 1997 we meet Eve, who is Dodie's granddaughter. Eve has returned to Suffolk on the premature death of her mother to pack up her studio near the coast. She is commissioned by a mysterious old lady to paint a portrait and as she does so, learns secrets about the past for the community and for her family.

There's a wonderful gothic feel to the book. The mysteries surrounding the women kept me turning the pages, lost in the mood and atmosphere, with all the action taking place beneath the towering Cathedral of the Marshes. I loved it!

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From the first line “The great structure known as the Cathedral of the Marshes had always been there” I was intrigued.
Everything about the building was a mystery, an eerie sleeping monster against the backdrop of the marshes.
Lord Aubrey Goldborough, Lady Vita’s brother, had it built in 1927, when he was less angry with the world.
Rumours were that he had it built to impress a girl, but it appears the gesture wasn’t grand enough as she married a man who owned half of Yorkshire.
The cathedral had been locked up every since, the art he had envisaged displaying inside it never purchased.
Vita had always viewed the cathedral as an ugly thing - a manifestation of her brother’s wealth.
A dual time frame with interesting female characters - Lady Vita Goldsborough, Dodie Blakeney & Eve Blakeney, who all interlink to each other and the Cathedral of the Marshes.
Lots of mysteries unanswered throughout the book - how did Dodie, Eve’s Grandmother know Lady Vita and why was there a birdcage with her mother’s name on it.
Revealing the truth sets the women free like birds.
An atmospheric, haunting and totally immersive read.
Thanks @writerpolly, @hqstories & @netgalley for the eARC

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A wonderful gothic read set on the Suffolk marshes. I could feel the tension throughout and the slow steady pace was perfect for this story. A woman finds letters that could tell her about her past. In the other time line we are with that past and find out just what the Cathedral of the marshes is and what it means for those letters we are still to read.

Loved it! Ghostly and gothic but also hearbreaking and tender.

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Vita and the Birds is historical fiction at its finest. It tells the story of two ladies in a dual timeline: Eve in 1997 is returning to the childhood summer home she has fond memories of until she starts to remember what really happened in the Cathedral of the Marshes eight years ago. She meets a local lady who wishes Eve to paint her portrait and Eve wonders if she knew her grandmother Dodie.
We also return to Vita's life in 1939 on the cusp of war and in a controlling relationship with her brother Aubrey. With a sinister backdrop and a mysterious birdcage engraved with three names, this has atmospheric tension galore ☺️

I loved this! Such a great premise and I always love a mix of generations retelling their story, discovering and learning about those different experiences. Aubrey was such a horrible character and they were all beautifully brought to life on the audiobook too. The Cathedral of the Marshes was such a muddle of beauty, freedom and horror, that it became a character in itself, as Eve remembered some of what happened through dreams and discussions with people who were there.

An easy five star read 😁

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