Review: The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant by Kayte Nunn

The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant by Kayte Nunn book cover
* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant is a terrific historical fiction novel from Australian author Kayte Nunn. Unfolding in dual timelines (1950s and 2018), the story is told from three character perspectives: Rachel (Marine Scientist), Esther Durrant (of the title) and Eve, looking after her grandmother in London.

It has to be said that I'm not usually a fan of romance novels or a great love story, but somehow Kayte Nunn tricked me by writing such a compelling historical fiction novel about a woman committed to a mental asylum by her husband in the 1950s, that the romance elements kind of snuck up on me.

Esther Durrant is a young mother committed to a private hospice by her husband with the very best of intentions for her care and recovery. It's 1951 and Esther is outraged when she finds herself trapped at Little Embers, which seems to be little more than a mental asylum. She has no choice but to surrender to the treatment being offered to her and the other patients in residence; men suffering shell shock and PTSD from the war.


Rachel takes up her new research post in the Isles of Scilly, off the Cornish coast and soon comes across the isolated island location of Little Embers. It's there that she discovers a number of incredibly moving letters secreted away in an old suitcase. (Although by the end of the novel, there's never an explanation for why the suitcase wasn't 'sent on' as planned).

In London, Eve is taking care of her grandmother - a retired mountaineer - and helping to write her memoir. These three storylines intertwined exceptionally well with just the right amount of time spent with each character.

The location was vividly described and I enjoyed the remote locality and the rugged wilderness of the Isles of Scilly in both timelines. However I'm not convinced the cover accurately conveyed the content or feel of the novel for me. Perhaps an image of the mental asylum on a remote island with a pair of hiking boots next to the door step would have encompassed the feel of the novel better for me. I also have no idea why there’s a butterfly on the cover.

The promo for this novel promises it will appeal to readers who love Elizabeth Gilbert and Kate Morton. I heartily agree with this. However, I'd go one step further to say that Kayte Nunn achieves her story in a far more compact and precise way than Elizabeth Gilbert did in The Signature of All Things and managed the timelines far better than Kate Morton did in her last novel The Clockmaker's Daughter.


The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant is highly recommended for historical fiction fans; even those who don't typically enjoy a romance.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

Would you like to comment?

  1. Manages the timeline better than Kate Morton did in "The Clockmaker's Daughter" sounds good to me. That book was confusing!

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  2. Thanks Davida, and I agree. I'm a huge fan of Kate Morton, but I also found The Clockmaker's Daughter confusing. I guess you can't expect every book from a favourite author to be perfect, can you? (We can hope though).

    Thanks Shelleyrae.

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  3. Thing is, "The Clockmaker's Daughter" was the first Morton I read. It sadly turned me off to her books. Maybe I should give her another chance...

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  4. Oh Davida, Kate Morton has some brilliant books and I'd beg you to give her another chance. My favourite of hers is The Forgotten Garden, followed by The Distant Hours. The Forgotten Garden would easily be in my Top 10 Australian books, so I hope you give it a chance.

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Thanks for your comment, Carpe Librum!