I enjoyed That They Might Lovely Be very much and thought that it was brilliantly structured – I really liked the way the plot-twists were woven in and felt it gained a new life with each fresh revelation. Withholding the final information, for as long as it was, meant the final chapters were very satisfying. The shifts and contrasts between the characters were compelling – particularly in the Ipswich section – very grainy, authentic, and sad. I enjoyed the references to Measure for Measure and Keats, giving the novel its literary roots. All of it was a very thought-provoking meditation on love and failures and I definitely look forward to re-reading it.
Catherine Brennan, poet, Beneath the Deluge
The action of That They Might Lovely Be is framed very pleasingly by the two wars. I really liked the reverse structure and the way it gives up the characters’ secrets and the central mystery of the vexed parentage of Bertie slowly and gradually. The reader has to work quite hard in the opening chapters to fix the characters and fill in what is unsaid. But that is as it should be and is one of the book’s chief pleasures. I thought David Matthews got the women just right and there were so many memorable scenes. He caught the period very convincingly and without any obvious set-dressing. The dialogue felt true to its time but natural – there wasn’t a false note anywhere. I’m not sure how David Matthews managed to pull off the unlikeliest romance imaginable and somehow make it joyful and honest but it was a great relief after the dysfunction and repression depicted throughout. He has managed the trickiest of doubles – a literary page-turner with a heart and a brain.
Clare Chambers, author of In a Good Light , The Editor’s Wife, and Back Trouble
David Matthews’ That They Might Lovely Be takes its title from the hymn My Song is Love Unknown by the seventeenth century hymn writer Samuel Crossman. But it takes more than just a title because this excellent first novel is also about love unknown, about sin and its consequences, about grief and even about redemption. Although there is war (the novel is set in rural Britain in the twin times of the 1920s and 1940s), suicide, loneliness and despair, it is a deeply hopeful novel. The setting is imbued with that fin de siècle sense of the passing of one age and the dawning of another including a degree of class conflict and the end of old moral certainties as well as the desperate desire to try and continue what has come to an end. The story is romantic but is far more than just a romance. The mute son of the schoolmaster – who may or may not really be the illegitimate son of his spinster daughter – is at the heart of the novel. The mystery of his origin and the projection onto that mystery of the hopes and fears of others provide part of the dramatic movement but more crucial is the development of his character as he discovers speech, grows and eventually is able to form a mature relationship; escaping from the claustrophobic family home and seeing his first adopted refuge destroyed by war. This is a very good read. The dialogue is particularly well written and realistic, the era is evoked perfectly and without artificial information being used to prop up the action. It might seem unkind to describe the book as perfect material for a film or mini-series because it works so well as a novel. A delight to read.
Fr Richard Peers, Director of Education, Anglican Diocese Board of Education
Although the title is taken from the well known hymn “My Song is Love Unknown”, at first glance, this does not appear to be a love story. Nor is it, in spite of the title, a particularly religious work. Rather, because of the intrigue and retrospective timeline, it is more of a mystery. The story begins dramatically with a World War II plane crashing into and destroying a house with the possibility of the occupants being killed. But that is not the peak of the situation, rather the bland reaction to the news of Delia and her father to the possible loss of Anstace and Bertie. Bertie is Delia’s much younger brother, or possibly her own child, raised by her parents to avoid scandal, that is part of the mystery, together with why Bertie, a mute, spontaneously one Easter began to sing the eponymous hymn. The story gently takes the reader back through time to gradually reveal the events that led to the present situation and there is very little second guessing as to how these intriguing circumstances came about. The writing switches quite seamlessly from the usual third person narrative, to intriguing letters, where one has to read between the lines to follow the story. Then again, we are treated to an eavesdropping style of chatter, where it is necessary to draw conclusions from the local gossip. Although the story is surprisingly dark in places, it is nevertheless a sparkling read, with carefully observed situations that fit well their timeline and location. Each of the characters is skilfully drawn and, while at first it would seem hard to understand the motivation of a few of the main protagonists, all is eventually revealed and no loose ends are left dangling in respect of their behaviour. Overall, a satisfying and captivating book, that paints a realistic picture of life during two world wars and the aftermath that such conflicts can cause to any person caught up in hostilities not of their making.
Eliza Jones, poet and former editor of Newslink Magazine
I finished this novel yesterday – it’s brilliant and so good on many levels. First and foremost it’s very well-written – I must say, I fear sounding a little patronising writing this about a former headmaster but I must say it: he enjoys language and this comes across. The second sentence here particularly stood out for me: “This, she supposed, is the purpose of memory. We boil and sugar, we pickle, salt and smoke our experiences, laying them down for future consumption.” I could have picked many others. I think that the language/choice of words has captured the epoch, the times, well, though I can’t lay claim to being sufficiently au fait with the difference between English as it was spoken in the ‘20s and as it was spoken in the ‘40s. It’s striking, too, that the language used by – shall we say – the ‘lower’ class is different to that used by the ‘upper middle’ without it jarring and seeming forced. None of this “oi, mate, wotcha” – Jessop’s and his ugly family’s language is different to the other characters’, but subtly so. The sex scenes – always the most difficult! – were honest, bold but never prurient. Many scenes in the book, are a credit to David’s ability to paint a picture and fill it with real characters. What I liked most was the slow reveal(ing) of the story: the questions raised in 1940 after which we go back to 1928-30 and then back to 1914-20 and finally forward to 1937-40. This non-linear narrative is brave and demanding of the reader but I like films and novels that treat you as an adult, that make you work. The end of the book is terrific. The sexual imagery of the fecund earth is something Ken Russell would have been proud of!
Bruno Noble, author A Thing of the Moment