Book review: The Sacred Combe

The Sacred Combe

The Sacred Combe

Thomas Maloney
Scribe Publications UK

UK Release date:
May 12, 2016
also available as ebook
Literary fiction


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Wow! When Scribe Publications UK approached me to review The Sacred Combe, I had really good vibes with the synopsis. Indeed, I was right away plunged in the wonderful world of books and nature, reminding me of so many other beloved works.

The book opens on the gorgeous description of a walled garden. I felt right back in The Secret Garden. Plus, there is a robin and so many birds and bird songs in the whole book. And if you will not find Colin, there’s Corvin, pretty close sounds.

This is only the beginning of the delight I felt reading this memorizing literary novel. There’s a bit of a mystery, but the pace and style are definitely more part of the literary fiction genre.

It is the story of Sam. After three years of marriage, his wife wrote him a letter and left him. This was totally unexpected and Sam experiences not only grief, but a loss of identity and panic. So, what do you do when life is too hectic?

To divert my attention from what I was by now used to calling my panic of the soul, I would simply read a book.

Yes, read a book of course, but it needs to be a fairly long book to do the trick, right?

Even Proust (another awesome reference for me, as I just finished reading the 7 volumes of In Search of Lost Time) would not do! So, where could you find longer books?

I determined to go to a bookshop and choose by appearance just as any sensible person chooses a bottle of wine.

What a wise man! And so he goes to… Charing Cross Road! Lucky man!

The descriptions of the books, book covers and bindings are fantastic, here and basically all throughout the book, with unique old editions.
I have the feeling you are already hooked, even though we have hardly started! That was my experience, I wanted to linger on every page.

Sam decides eventually to purchase The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon. In case you don’t know and wonder, the book does exist, as I believe all the numerous books mentioned in the novel. Unless the author manged to trick me. In volume 7 of this super long series, he finds a small notice: someone is looking for a volunteer to archive a private library, board and lodging provided.

Thinking that could only be good for his soul, Sam resigns from his job and goes, in the middle of nowhere, to work at Combe Hall, built in the 1600s. The library houses over 18,000 volumes, not counting three centuries of correspondence.
But what will his task really be there? And what’s behind this mysterious locked door near the library? Who really is his employer, doctor Arnold Comberbache?

I will not tell you more, but be prepared to accompany Sam on a wonderful healing journey, as can only happen during 17 weeks in the company of books, books, and more books! Little by little, he will get to know dead and alive members of this unique family.

I advanced into a much larger room, looked around, and back, and up. What I saw was books: I was standing in a cathedral to the glory of books.

You will pick up so many references to other books, some quoted without any reference, like a passage of L’étranger by Camus, used as a prayer before eating (!) — incidentally, this was spooky, as I also just reread it! Which allowed me to identify the book right away.
And oh, my FAVORITE book ever is there too! In the ambiance for sure, but also with the gardener, called Meaulnes, and even Le petit Meaulnes (funny)! And Yvonne is mentioned in Part 3, chapter 12. But I’m sure I also missed tons of other references.

And there’s music, mostly Bach!

As for the presence of the nature theme, yes the author is also an avid birder as I am. And you can smell the flowers, stroll in enchanting gardens, feel the wind, enjoy fog and snow in the British countryside, follow birds and suddenly discover a mysterious and glorious building… Don’t forget though that Mother Nature can also be treacherous…
And of course there’s the inevitable but nice and quaint pub.

I rose early, surprising the reluctant dawn, and was excited to see that more snow had fallen but dismayed by a heavy mist enveloping the bowed plum trees. It was as though the elements had determined to do away with the world altogether — first silencing it with frost, then bleaching and blanketing it with snow, and now erasing with mist the last stubborn pencil lines of the birches and the division between earth and sky.
part 2, chap.6

Isn’t this writing hauntingly beautiful?  I feel like tasting every word.

Just as the sight of a genuine reader in a library is morally comforting,… so is the sight of a gardener tending his crop.
Part 2, chap. 2

All these elements contribute to create a very atmospheric book, both romantic (in the way of Le Grand Meaulnes, not of popular romance) and gothic. If you love books, and you must be if you read this review, then you must absolutely read it. It could well end up being one of my favorite reads of 2016!


Roman qui chante la valeur thérapeutique des livres et de la lecture. Chaque page, chaque mot est à goûter. Truffé de nombreuses références littéraires.

VERDICT: Remarkable hymn to the healing powers of books, readers, writers, and nature. A delight to enjoy word by word.


‘A man’s eye is accommodative, like his heart.’

Samuel Browne’s wife has left him suddenly after three years of marriage. She invites him to ‘go and live a better life without me’. He must start again, and alone.

And so it is that Sam finds himself deep in the English countryside in a cold but characterful old house, remote and encircled by hills, in the employment and company of an older, wiser man, a man as fond of mystery as he is of enlightenment. What is the purpose of the seemingly hopeless task set for Sam in the house’s ancient library? What is the secret of the unused room? And where does a life lose its way or gain its meaning?

The combe is home to a truth born of fraud, a building made of light, and a family wrecked by recklessness: loss and love reverberate around the house and around the novel, providing pleasure, pain and purpose. Combe Hall is a house designed to honor and to enthrall. And this very fine debut novel does exactly the same.


‘A bibliophile’s delight, a mystery, a tease, a frisson of dread, a fugue, a literary detective story, a philosophical fable – its imagination exquisitely calibrated to a gentle Gothicism where Bach, Coleridge, Thomas Chatterton and Edgar Allan Poe flit among the shades. Thomas Maloney’s perfectly-judged story, with its vital and resonant sense of place, will surely become one of the beloved arcana of English fiction.’,
Jim Perrin, author of West: A Journey Through the Landscapes of Loss



Thomas Maloney
was born in Kent in 1979,
grew up in London,
and studied physics at university.
He is a competent but unexceptional mountaineer
and an astigmatic birdwatcher.
He lives in Oxfordshire with his wife, daughter, and kayak.

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 Did you read any other book reminding you of
The Secret Garden?


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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
I received this ebook for free from Scribe Publications UK in exchange for a fair and honest review.
I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.

This book counted for the following Reading Challenges

New Authors  New-Release-Challenge2016


5 thoughts on “Book review: The Sacred Combe

  1. Pingback: 2016: May wrap-up | Words And Peace

  2. Pingback: Interview with Thomas Maloney, author of The Sacred Combe | Words And Peace

  3. Pingback: 2016 ebook reading challenge | Words And Peace

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