Review: A Tomb With a View | Peter Ross
The latest publication to come off the press at Headline publishers is Peter Ross’s ‘A Tomb With A View’.
I have to confess that when I first saw this title I was in the middle of purchasing books on Edinburgh graveyards and saw it come up in my ‘Also Recommended ‘ feed.
I dismissed it at first, though it was a ‘nice to have’, something that I could ask for at Christmas or as a birthday present later in the year.
But then I kept seeing it. Everywhere. Reviews written about it were glowing and I felt that I was missing something enjoyable to read and that I wanted to be in on the conversation too.
Flicking through its pages, you soon get the sense that Ross isn’t going to recount the life of some of the inhabitants of a local graveyard and expect you to develop an attachment to them by the end of the second chapter. Not many authors will focus on the smaller often overlooked aspects of a graveyard, and see things that other visitors will probably never notice like ‘ladybugs wintering in the eyes, nostrils and puckered lips of a fat stone cherub’.
So I bought it. Hardback Edition £20. Just like that. The paperback isn’t scheuled for release until later next year and, if I’m honest, I couldn’t really wait that long.
This is the type of book you need for these darker autumnal months. The type of book where you settle into the corner of a favourite chair or sofa and as the nights draw in, you let yourself get lost in stories about graveyards and its inhabitants.
But what did I like and hate about the book? Was it worth the £20 gift voucher that I’d received from a friend as a thank you present? Read on as I dig a little deeper.
There is never a dull moment in this book are you are taken on a journey with a difference throughout the British Isles.
I was very surprised and pleased to see Belfast mentioned, mainly because you don’t often get books talking about graveyards covering Edinburgh and Belfast at the same time, but it made for a refreshing change to have key graveyards from Northern Ireland included in a narrative.
A churchyard in Brighton is also included, as is Bristol’s Arnos Vale, places that rarely get mentioned in more popular publications. A remote graveyard in the western Highlands is also included, the ascent from the shoreline beautifully described.
It certainly makes for better reading to include some different locations from time to time.
Ross has made accessible the history of our churchyards, inadvertently encouraging us to discover these places from a different angle, enriching our understanding of the ‘crooked headstones’ that we encounter on our visits, making us pause and consider the inhabitants from a more personal perspective.
Chapter Five, simple titled ‘Phoebe’ starts with the picture of a barely decipherable gravestone. My heart sinks, I wasn’t that far into the book and was enjoying it so far, had Ross already lost his momentum?
I don’t like to start a book and not finish it, so, giving Ross the benefit of doubt, I flicked the page over and began reading about Phoebe Hessel.
I’d never heard of Phoebe Hassel before but my god, she has my admiration now I can tell you. I won’t spoil who she is, if, like me, you haven’t heard of her before (you could just Google it, let’s face it), but let’s just say she put a little spring in my step after reading her story. If she can, then I can.
And to cap it all she lived to the ripe old age of 108, back in the day when medicine was just emerging from its infancy and when body snatching was about to start a second joyous wave.
Oh What Descriptions!
We all have our favourite parts to any book we read, even when we’ve finished and we’re generally satisfied, we all remember the really good parts.
My personal favourite, hit early on, on page 39, with the merest mention of rats carrying away body parts in the burial ground at Russell Court, just off Drury Lane.
It then carried on overleaf, where Ross described the shallow graves found within London’s churchyards as discussed by George Walker in Gatherings From Grave Yards when describing a mourner watching a burial:
…he is standing, it turns out, on the body of the grave’s previous occupant, placed to one side and only lightly covered in soil. The skin slips off, like an overripe plum, and the mourner almost falls into the hole
I could almost hear the squelching.
Ross has a way of putting things that many may not naturally describe in such a way; like the old ovens where cremations were carried out at Arnos Vale. ‘It is rusty and brown, the colour of dried blood’ Ross states, and yeah, I immediately know the oclour to which he refers.
Much more descriptive than a dark reddish brown.
Glad I Bought It?
Yes, I am. This is one of those books that, each time you read it you get something different from it. It’s one of those books that you ‘fancy’ reading, the book that has the ability to take you on a journey, be that through tales of slipping skin, pumpkin lined pathways, or archaeological digs.
I was unsure at first, it’s not usually the type of book I read but I’m glad I did. It’s helped me to look at graveyards from a different perspective. To look deeper than just body snatching relics and tales of plunder and violation.
All I can say is that I’m glad I bought the hardback. If I’d have waited, I’d have missed the wave of excitement this book has produced and instead have been wondering what exactly had Ross written in the pages of A Tomb With A View.
I reserved my book with Waterstones and collected it instore but it is widely available online at Amazon.co.uk or if you prefer an alternative AbeBooks.co.uk Both of these links are affiliate links and will take you to the respective websites. You can listen to part of the audiobook via the Amazon link if you want to get a taster for what’s inside.
Can I however urge you to try to support your local independent bookshop whenever possible please, even if this is a chain such as Waterstones. I’m sure if they don’t have it in stock, they’d be more than happy to order it in for you if you simply asked.
To help you find a local bookshop instead of using the high end online retailers, you may like to take a look at this website for the Booksellers Association. From their home page here you can search for your local bookshop (in the UK & Ireland) and keep your shopping on a more local scale.