Book Review: The Forgotten Letters Of Esther Durrant by Kayte Nunn

The Forgotten Letters Of Esther Durrant…

About the Book:

1951. Esther Durrant, a young mother, is committed to an isolated mental asylum by her husband. Run by a pioneering psychiatrist, the hospital is at first Esther’s prison but soon becomes her refuge.

2018. Free-spirited marine scientist Rachel Parker embarks on a research posting in the Isles of Scilly, off the Cornish coast. When a violent storm forces her to take shelter on a far-flung island, she discovers a collection of hidden love letters. Captivated by their passion and tenderness, Rachel determines to track down the intended recipient.

Meanwhile, in London, Eve is helping her grandmother, a renowned mountaineer, write her memoirs. When she is contacted by Rachel, it sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to reveal secrets kept buried for more than sixty years.

The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant is a deeply atmospheric, resonant novel that charts the heart’s wild places, choices and consequences. If you love Elizabeth Gilbert and Kate Morton you will devour this book.

My Thoughts:

‘A seam of light escaping heavy curtains that had been drawn across a window came into focus and she raised her head to fully appraise herself of her surroundings. She had no idea where she was. Beneath her, an eiderdown, on top of her a blanket, though she was clothed beneath it. She tried to move her arms but found that they were securely wrapped around her waist. A coarse fabric chafed at her neck. She rolled to one side in an attempt to free her arms, but it was in vain. She had been bound. The design of the garment was such that it could not be torn, could not be loosened. She’d heard of such things, but never actually seen one: a strong dress.’

I first heard of this novel via a short publicity Q&A with the author, Kayte Nunn, in which she highlighted that the inspiration for this novel was two fold: from childhood wanderings through the ruins of an abandoned mental asylum, and from the real story of her own great-grandmother, who was committed to a mental hospital with post-natal depression when her son was a small boy, and tragically, she spent the rest of her life there. Both sources of inspiration struck me as profoundly sad, yet also, quite intriguing. I made a note then and there that this was a novel I would be reading as soon as I got my hands on a copy. It did not disappoint.

‘Esther was dumbfounded. He’d left her there? She’d heard of husbands committing their wives to insane asylums – for she was under no illusion now, that is what this godforsaken place must surely be – but had never imagined John would do such a thing to her, despite everything that had happened. She’d always believed that he loved her; depended on his kindness. Would he have really thought this the most appropriate course of action?’

The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant is an exploration of mental illness at a time when respectful care was still in its infancy. Esther is incarcerated, at the will of her husband, at a remote private hospice, located on an island off the Cornish coast. She is the only female patient, the other patients all being ex-soldiers suffering from different degrees of post traumatic stress. There is a lot of sadness threaded through this story, but it rings true. The doctor in charge is a caring, empathic, intelligent man who wants nothing more than to bring his patients back to a point where they can successfully live in society. He doesn’t use medication, and with the exception of the straight jacket for patient safety, he also doesn’t used barbaric methods of treatment. I felt that these sections were crafted beautifully; containing a great deal of sadness, but tinged with hope. What happened to Esther was tragic: the loss, the lack of compassion and support, the judgement, and then the eventual betrayal from her husband – all seemingly par for the course in keeping with the era. Now that’s a tragedy.

‘They must have taken Samuel away from me. I still don’t know where he went. I never saw him again, never even got to say goodbye.’ She twisted her hands on the chair. ‘There wasn’t a burial and I was in too much of a fog to ask why not. It was only later that John told me they had taken his body to hospital. To see if they could find out what had happened to him. He let them do that, to his own son!’ She spat the words out. ‘They never gave him back.’
‘Oh Esther, I’m sorry,’ he said. Hearing her tell the story, even though John had told him some of it already, made his heart ache for her.
‘There’s no grave, no way of sending his poor soul to heaven, no way of telling him how sorry I was, how I had let him down, that it was all my fault, that I hadn’t loved him as a mother should.’

The narration exists within two distinct timelines, but with three main characters. The author showed a lot of skill with this, and I really enjoyed how she connected these via her unravelling of the story. Kayte Nunn is certainly at home with this style of writing. The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant is a quiet novel, an unfolding of a story in layers, the mystery and drama almost reserved. I liked this about it, a good, solid story that was devoid of dramatic overplay; the characterisation was subtle too, each uniquely rendered, yet not over shadowing the story, or each other. This really was my ideal novel and I loved it. It’s deeply moving, contemplative, and absorbing. Highly recommended.


Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing me with a copy of The Forgotten Letters Of Esther Durrant for review

About the Author:

Kayte Nunn is a former book and magazine editor, and the author of two contemporary novels, ROSE’S VINTAGE and ANGEL’S SHARE. THE BOTANIST’S DAUGHTER was Kayte’s first novel of transporting historical fiction, followed by THE FORGOTTEN LETTERS OF ESTHER DURRANT, set largely in the atmospheric Isles of Scilly. If you would like to see the wonderful images inspired by the book, Kayte’s Pinterest page is at: or you can find her at

The Forgotten Letters Of Esther Durrant
Published by Hachette Australia
Released on 28th May 2019

7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Forgotten Letters Of Esther Durrant by Kayte Nunn

  1. Pingback: Classics and Literary Round-up: May 2019 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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