The story begins when tragedy hits the small fishing island of Puerto Franco. An eleven-year-old girl named Leah is mysteriously lost at sea, and although the villagers search for days her body is never found. After the island is hit by a series of mysterious storms, the islanders turn on Leah’s mother Cristina and brother Sebastian, believing that Cristina’s unwillingness to move on has put a curse on the island.
Thirty years later Mar, a visual artist hoping to take a break from her own unhappy circumstances, arrives on the island with her own eleven-year-old daughter Lemay. They are initially welcomed by the islanders, but a series of supernatural events makes Mar realize things may not be what they seem. When Mar meets the now grown up Sebastian, she slowly uncovers the islands tragic past and comes upon a shocking discovery that will not only uncover what really happened to Leah, but will also explain the nature of Puerto Franco’s mysterious ‘curse’.
Mar’s attempts to find out what happened to Leah are the driving force behind this plot, but there are also several engaging sub plots. These sub plots include Mar’s back story, the blooming romance between Sebastian and Mar, Sebastian’s own failing relationship, and the story of the village and it’s inhabitants.
I found the supernatural element of this story really interesting because it didn’t fall into typical horror story tropes. It was nice that although the ghost is quite understandably angry and wants justice, the horror element wasn’t over done. I find that a lot of horror stories tend to follow the same formulas, and it gets a bit predictable after a while. Leah doesn’t do this.
The ghost isn’t a creepy, evil ring-girl stereotype whose purpose is to scare the reader and murder the innocent. I liked that the author didn’t just go with the ‘evil ghost child’ stereotype because it’s been done so many times already. People who don’t normally enjoy horror can still enjoy Leah because whilst it has supernatural elements, it is not your standard horror story.
Some people who have read Leah felt that the romantic sub plot between Mar and Sebastian was in danger of overshadowing the rest of the novel, and that the story sometimes felt more like a chick flick than a mystery/suspense novel. The romance was quite prominent in this story, but I personally don’t see that as a bad thing.
As the author gives you a lot of insight into what’s going on inside Sebastian and Mar’s heads, the romance gets a lot of a build up which makes it feel genuine rather than forced. It did sometimes feel like the romance was becoming the main plot whilst the supernatural/mystery part was being sidelined, but that changes towards the end of the novel. The romance isn’t sickly sweet either, in fact it’s quite tragic and highlights the divide between the islanders and the mainlanders. If you hate any kind of romance it might be a problem, but if you’re just not into sappy sweetness then you don’t need to worry. It’s not that kind of book.
Writing style and imagery
“She inspected the kitchen over the rim of her glass. In the centre, cast-iron pots and skillets hung from a rudimentary contraption over a butcher’s block. Two large fridges, vintage 1950s, with curved corners, convex doors and horizontal handles lined the one wall, the cooker and oven taking up most of the other. Bundles of carrots, spinach, and a few heads of cabbage brimmed over the granite worktop. The appliances aside, the setting was out of a Dutch baroque painting”
Leah is a very visual novel, and Dana K Haffar fills her pages with imagery so the reader can visualize the island and its inhabitants. Descriptions can slow the pace of a story, but I thought it worked in Leah. You get a real sense of what the characters look like, what the huts are like, even what the sea is like, and that draws you into the story and leaves a lasting impression in your mind. Towing the line between description and dialogue is something a lot of authors never quite get right, but Leah is remarkably well balanced and the different story telling elements work well together. The imagery is very effective and well written. This is such a visual book that since I finished it I can’t stop thinking that Leah would make an excellent film someday.
One thing that Dana K. Haffar is very good at is getting inside her characters heads, and even though this is a third person novel you really get a sense of the characters inner thought processes. This is very effective with Mar and Sebastian because not only does it give their romance more weight, but it also helps the reader empathize with and care about these characters, which in turn makes the reader more invested in the book.
This device is perhaps most powerful at the beginning of this novel, which describes the aftermath of Leah’s disappearance and how it affects her mother and brother. Not only does Dana manage to astutely describe Cristina’s panic and denial, but she also successfully gets inside little Sebastian’s mind. The way neglect and tragedy are described through the eyes of an eight-year-old child is very powerful and establishes Sebastian as a sympathetic and likable character from the very start.
“He was being punished, for sure. It was his fault Leah drowned. Because he wanted a sweet so badly and went to the market with his mother. It had to be why. No one was kind to him anymore …. Because he was too scared to go to school, he pretended he had a sore tummy. When his Mama said nothing, he did the same the next day and the day after. So that too was good. Not having to go to school. And really, he wasn’t lying. His tummy often hurt now because there was never food in the house. His mother had stopped eating. So, when he went hungry, he stole.”
Leah is generally a well written, professional looking novel. There are no obvious mistakes, no clumsy phrases and there isn’t really anything I can find that needed to be improved. The author shifted between the present and the past with ease and managed to tell us the backstories of multiple characters without breaking the flow of the novel. In short, Leah is a very addictive book that you can imagine picking off a shelf in Waterstones.
The Spanish fishing island of Puerto Franco is essential for this story because it is only in such an isolated, superstitious and inward looking place that the strange events of this novel could take place. Many readers are not going to be familiar with Spain, but the imagery (and several Spanish phrases sprinkled through the novel) reinforces the setting, and it serves to make the novel more interesting to U.K and US based audiences. It is very easy to visualize Puerto Franco thanks to Dana’s imagery, and you get quite a clear image of the small, isolated fishing village surrounded by the sea.
The conflict between the mainland and the island, whether it’s the locals jealousy and contempt for the ‘easy life’ the mainlanders live, or Mar’s envy when she sees how free and natural Manuella and Sebastian are, is a strong theme throughout this book and leaves a lasting image. Mar’s status as a mainlander and thus an outsider is precisely why she is able to solve Leah’s mystery, and it also brings a sad undertone to her relationship with Sebastian. This romance is perhaps more powerful because everyone knows it can’t last, that Mar is going to go back to her ‘real’ life.
Mar is a well-established character with a developed back story. I found the idea of a visual artist losing her sight an especially powerful image, and Mar’s sad past and unhappy marriage not only makes her sympathetic, but it is the reason why only she can solve the mystery of Leah. Although Mar is by all accounts a delicate, feathery feminine figure, she is also brave, strong and principled.
Sebastian is established as a sympathetic character right from the first chapter where he is depicted as an eight-year-old. Grown up Sebastian is sensitive, caring and deeply attached to the island and the people who helped bring him up. He is completely contrasted by Manuella who is strong-willed, cold and obsessive.
Other notable characters include Manuella and her family, Clara, and Romulo. I liked the idea of Romulo as a bitter, slightly cold old man who took a young child under his wing and protected him ever since. Characters don’t have to be entirely good or bad, and I find the best characters are the complex ones.
I am giving Leah 4.5 stars because it is well written, engaging and professional. It’s a shame that so many good books never get the recognition they deserve and audiences miss out because they simply don’t know where to find them.
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