Published in the 1980s, #50 The Shell Seekers is a family saga stretching from the turn of the twentieth century to the late ’80s. The lynchpin is Penelope, whose role shifts over time from daughter to mother, cared for to carer, naive to experienced.
I remember reading Pilcher’s novels as a teenager, and was looking forward to reading The Shell Seekers. It’s a good book, on the whole, but not brilliant and not one I think I would read again.
Length and breadth
Like many of the Big Read books, The Shell Seekers is thick. It clocks in at almost 700 pages and is packed with characters – at least a dozen main characters appear and disappear as the pages turn.
Fortunately, Pilcher is a master of clarity. The book flashes back and forth from the present moment, dealing with dozens of characters and jumping from one point of their lives to another yet I found it easy to keep them all straight. I’d have to reread the novel to figure out how she did it – simply good, clear writing, I suspect – as I don’t recall any Dickensian mnemonics like ‘the man with the hunch’ or ‘her waist length strawberry hair’.
In fact, the world and the characters are mostly quite ordinary, and that’s one of its strengths. There are no heros or villains, simply people who you meet, agree with or disagree with, like or dislike, as though you’re suddenly privy to the gossip and the truth behind the gossip at work or at school, and everything is laid bare.
Written and set in the 1980s, the present of the novel felt more alien to me than the past. I’m familiar with characters talking about V2s and rationing but, being a child at the time, missed out on the power suits and gymkhanas which preoccupy the characters in the ‘present’
Britain in Pilcher’s ’80s seems like a throwback. The characters are very much focussed on marriage and respectability – more so than in the earlier years – and the world seems very small and provincial. There’s little travel, little social mixing. Everyone is white and women mostly stay at home. It’s about as modern as Jane Austen, in some ways, and I found that very odd.
As the 1940s are rather less staid, I imagine Pilcher is trying to say something with this portrayal, but I don’t understand what.
All in all, I was disappointed by The Shell Seekers. It seems to have worn badly – perhaps it needs to be put away until it’s not just the past but history, and I – or perhaps my grandchildren – can read it with fresh eyes. But then I suspect that future generations will read it even more straight facedly than I did, and miss the deeper message much as I did.