by Ralph Webster
Through the contents of a hidden drawer in a Japanese cabinet, Ralph stumbles across the history and secrets of two women, Hilda and Katie, who were both married to the same man, German Jew, Josef Samson. The Other Mrs. Samson transports the reader through two world wars, three continents, heartbreak and intrigue before the final secret is revealed…
The Other Mrs. Samson is a beautifully absorbing novel that reads with a gentle, almost leisurely pace despite some of the issues it confronts. It reminded me heavily of a cross-generational, doorstop saga spanning the majority of the twentieth century but in condensed form. I really enjoyed it; from the beginning the prose is quietly confident with a reassuring tone which is comfortable to read. The narrative structure is ambitious, especially in the beginning when we flit from 2020 to mid-2000s with pit-stops in 1970 and 1995. This could have become a little confusing but these scattered opening chapters hint at lots of intriguing avenues and are nicely-structured. By Chapter 8, it is 1914 and we are reading Hilda’s story.
Although Katie figures in the novel to a greater extent, I think Hilda was my favourite. She seemed more rounded and her voice really shines through; there is a depth and poignancy to her story. She is very self-aware and I admired her honesty; she is frank in admitting that she has been spoiled and her parents are unashamedly wealthy. This is in direct contrast to her Grandfather and Great-Uncle’s story and I found their struggle and subsequent rise to riches quite compelling. All the characters were nicely developed with personal nuances and interest and I liked the way fairly important nuggets of information are subtly imparted to the reader such as, ‘our Jewish traditions’, immediately setting off a mental warning bell as the book takes us into Germany shortly before World War II.
Katie’s story is quite different yet with the common thread of Josef. He comes more alive in her remembrances. The reader begins to engage with him, we are told his daily habits and foibles whereas he came across as slightly remote in Hilda’s writings; although this is reflective of the period. However, he is not always entirely likeable and sometimes Katie seems an appendage to him rather than a person in her own right. You certainly get the sense of her love for Josef and the reasoning for her reserved personality in later life but, at times, she needed a touch more definition. Again, as with Hilda’s story, there are some lovely supporting characters and the subtly personal prose makes them spring fully to life.
There is a lot of historical ground to cover accurately in the novel and Mr. Webster does a fantastic job. All the periods and locations are richly detailed; there is a lot of research and knowledge at work here and it makes for an immersive read. Technically, the book is faultlessly edited and the short chapter structure was crucial in maintaining momentum.
The title is very clever and works on a number of levels. The twist that comes shortly before the end was a surprise. There are a couple of hints earlier in the novel but I felt it could have done with being signposted a shade louder to really connect and have impact.
Notwithstanding, The Other Mrs. Samson is a polished and sweeping novel that I found hard to put down. Highly recommended.