In Sweet Sanctuary, Wren is a single mother, raising 10-year-old Charlie alone after his father abandoned them both when Charlie was three months old, signing over his parental rights along with the divorce. She has struggled over the years to reclaim her faith and to survive financially, and is now working as a librarian in a small town in coastal Maine. The two live in the caretakers’ cottage on the property of the family holiday home, which has been unused since Wren was a child. She is surprised on morning by an unplanned visit from her grandmother, Ruth, who wants to get her three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren together for her upcoming 90th birthday party, in an effort to heal the family relationships that were broken long ago.
Meanwhile, Wren is preoccupied by problems with Charlie and problems at work. Charlie is an accomplished violinist with the opportunity to study at a prestigious music school in Boston, but that would mean moving and be a financial challenge. Charlie is also having problems with his best friend at school, whose mother happens to be Wren’s prayer partner. Wren is surprised to find that Derek, her ex-husband, has been in contact with Charlie without her knowledge or permission, and wonders how she is meant to deal with the fact that he appears to want a relationship with them. She is also surprised to be asked out by a man from work, and unbelieving at the workplace gossip that Paul, the handsome café owner, might be interested in her. As the novel progresses, Wren is encouraged by others to trust in God, and challenged around some of her long-held beliefs about family relationships.
Sweet Sanctuary was written entirely from Wren’s point of view. I found it a refreshing changing to find a modern writer who does not engage in ‘head hopping’, or continually changing points of view from character to character. Changing point of view, when done well, can add immeasurably to the understanding of the different characters in a novel, but when done badly I find it confusing. By writing exclusively from Wren’s point of view, I gained a deeper understanding of her problems, including her questions about her interactions and relationships with other people. It was also nice to see her relationship with Paul develop despite her concerns.
Sweet Sanctuary first caught my attention because it is by Shelia Walsh, who I remember as a Christian singer in the 1980’s (I’m potentially showing my age now!). I knew she had moved into writing as I have seen her name on several non-fiction books over the years, but this is the first time I have come across a fiction title, so I was keen to see how well the musician had translated into an author. The answer: very well! I did a little research and found that not only has Shelia continued with her recording career, she has also managed to earn a Doctorate in theology, and authored many non-fiction titles. Her first fiction title, Angel Song, was published in 2010. I enjoyed Sweet Sanctuary, and would certainly read further books by Shelia Walsh and her co-writer, Cindy Martinusen Coloma. Perhaps there will be a sequel to Sweet Sanctuary, as some of the sub-plots could certainly sustain further development…