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On Chapel Sands

My Mother and Other Missing Persons
Narrated by: Laura Cumming
Length: 7 hrs and 41 mins

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Publisher's Summary

Brought to you by Penguin.

BBC Radio 4 book of the week.

Uncovering the mystery of her mother’s disappearance as a child: Laura Cumming, prize-winning author and art critic, takes a closer look at her family story.

In the autumn of 1929, a small child was kidnapped from a Lincolnshire beach. Five agonising days went by before she was found in a nearby village. The child remembered nothing of these events and nobody ever spoke of them at home. It was another 50 years before she even learned of the kidnap.

The girl became an artist and had a daughter, art writer Laura Cumming. Cumming grew up enthralled by her mother’s strange tales of life in a seaside hamlet of the 1930s, and of the secrets and lies perpetuated by a whole community. So many puzzles remained to be solved. Cumming began with a few criss-crossing lives in this fraction of English coast - the postman, the grocer, the elusive baker - but soon her search spread right out across the globe as she discovered just how many lives were affected by what happened that day on the beach - including her own. 

On Chapel Sands is a book of mystery and memoir. Two narratives run through it: the mother’s childhood tale and Cumming’s own pursuit of the truth. Humble objects light up the story: a pie dish, a carved box, an old Vick’s jar. Letters, tickets, recipe books, even the particular slant of a copperplate hand give vital clues. And pictures of all kinds, from paintings to photographs, open up like doors to the truth. Above all, Cumming discovers how to look more closely at the family album - with its curious gaps and missing persons - finding crucial answers, captured in plain sight at the click of a shutter.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying PDF will be available in your Audible Library along with the audio.

©2019 Laura Cumming (P)2019 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

"A modern masterpiece." (Guardian

"A moving, many-sided human story of great depth and tenderness, and a revelation of how art enriches life." (Sunday Times

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Profile Image for Rachel Redford
  • Rachel Redford
  • 09-01-19

Lost and found

I'm afraid that I found Laura Cumming's narration of her own work spoiled 'On Chapel Sands' for me. I can totally understand why she is intensely emotionally involved in the very complex net of her family's lies which caused so much pain to so many members of her family. BUT her acknowledgements which she reads at the end of the recording shows that she has a reasonably vigorous speaking voice. She has chosen to read 'On Chapel Sands' in an ultra-gentle, super-soft-reverential tone overflowing with compassion which after a fairly short time I found irritating and monotonous. The poignancy of the family story can speak for itself (as it would when reading) and this unstinting injection of sickly gentleness very quickly palled..

Cumming's mother's family saga which she has so scrupulously researched and pieced together is fascinating: the kidnap of her 3 year-old mother and the ignorance of the child's parentage in which she was raised is just the start. Cumming presents a myriad of plaited stories of changed names, an apparently mean and bad-tempered 'father'; her mother's escape from the Post Office to art school; a strange old woman claiming to be her grandmother - and many more twists and turns, visions and revisions. How sad it is to reflect on the legacy of human misery caused by the shame and lies surrounding one illegitimate birth which today would have passed unremarked!

Giving all this complex narrative depth is Cumming's wanderings into the world of art which has shaped her (she is The Observer art critic) - particularly Bruegel's 'Landscape with the fall of Icarus' which encapsulates the human silence surrounding the trauma of the fall of Icarus with its parallels to the fate of Cumming's mother as a child. The paintings - from Ravilious to Fra Angelico are an added dimension to all the human insight.

A haunting story beautifully told - but it needs a different narrator!

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  • Review When Possibly Can
  • 09-03-19

Story OK, but too long for what the story is

Very elegant prose disguising an OK story. Summary is deliberately trying to be cleverly deceiving, but I found it just misleading. Basically a bit like the book. Flatters to be an amazing story, but more about love than a story for me.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • JT CULLUM
  • 09-10-19

Beautiful

Moving, beautifully written and read.
An insight into a different time. Listened to it all in a few days

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  • Mrs Natalia O'Sullivan
  • 09-06-19

A heartfelt real story

Tender, colourful and descriptive. I would recommend it to all my friends who are interested in family history.