Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt by Lucinda Riley & Harry Whittaker

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

The Seven Sister Series, initiated by Lucinda Riley many years ago, will mean a lot more to readers brought up on the books than to those like myself, a newcomer entering at Book 8. However, one can rest assured that there is much to read from the eighth and final volume. Unfortunately, there is confusion left by the author in the title. Whether we’re reading about Pa Salt or PA Salt is moot and largely immaterial,  but certainly sloppy.

Contemporaneous with the interwar period in Paris readers meet a young, intelligent mute boy who is rescued from a cruel social life and taken in by a supporting family. Muteness is no impediment to living. In Book 8 it is the story of the mute boy that occupies the author, the seven sisters do not meet as a family.  One of them is missing anyway.   The boy discovers a talent for music and enrols at the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris. Safe within its walls, he flourishes, always aware that the time is approaching come when he may have to seek escape.

The sisters come to life in a number of places not least being in Section 11, page 131. Maia sees the room as a grand floating library, packed to the brim with favourite tomes. She recalled endless, sumptuous summers picking out novels and retreating up to the sun deck to spend a day reading under golden rays. That she is ten in her vision explains the idleness she displays.

In 2008 the seven sisters are informed of the passing of their father. There is a question mark about him as the girls had barely known him, (yet carried on as though he was everybody’s favourite uncle) and the one sister who can always sense when someone is about to pass, has had no such message. The missing sister is entrusted with the clue to their collective pasts. We are assured that these long-buried secrets could hold consequences for each sister today.

It is assumed for the sake of the story that the girls will travel on a train packed with Bolshevik soldiers. This is sufficiently credible, given the type of story that it is. Clumsy it may be but completely acceptable to its non-discerning audience. The story is a well-contrived tale of derring-do that young people would love.

While the main characters are drawn with care but frustrating in their relationships (one more ‘my darlings’ would be one too many for this reader), little can be said about the peripherals who do their job and disappear as quickly and silently as they arrived. This is as it should be. To throw in the hidden histories of the peripheral staff and expect the reader to grasp these together with their relationships to the main characters is simply asking too much.

Complicated linkages applied to characters or events are perfectly acceptable provided one is convinced of their authenticity. At least several of the main characters face despair and hope, gulled by adventure and triumph, and need to distinguish under pressure between decisions based on rational thinking and emotive desire. The author has no problem with authenticity.

The story demands a lot.  Despair and hope are constant companions, but they who suffer also face loss, charity, friendship, opportunity, chance, adventure and triumph, in any sort of combinatorial arrangement. True British spirit would be overwhelmed. It is too much to ask. Yet Lucinda Riley triumphs.

Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt

(2023)

by Lucinda Riley and Harry Whittaker

Pan Macmillan

ISBN: 978-152904-353-2

$34.99; 784 pp

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