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About the book
  • Published: 2 April 2020
  • ISBN: 9781784708634
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $22.99

On Chapel Sands

My mother and other missing persons

The Sunday Times bestseller - Laura Cumming, prize-winning author and art critic, uncovers the mystery of her mother’s disappearance as a child


'A modern masterpiece' Guardian

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.

Autumn 1929 – a young girl is kidnapped from a beach. Five agonising days go by before she is discovered safe and well in a nearby village. The child remembers nothing of these events and at home, nobody ever speaks of them again.

Decades later, Laura Cumming delves into the mystery surrounding her mother’s disappearance. Examining everything from old family photos to letters, tickets and recipes, she uncovers a series of secrets and lies perpetuated not just by her family but by the whole community and in doing so unlocks a mystery almost a century old.

'A moving, many-sided human story of great depth and tenderness, and a revelation of how art enriches life' Sunday Times
Shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction
Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize
Longlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize

  • Pub date: 2 April 2020
  • ISBN: 9781784708634
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $22.99

About the Author

Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming has been the art critic at the Observer since 1999. Previously, she was a presenter of Nightwaves on Radio 3, arts producer for the BBC World Service and arts editor of the New Statesman. Her previous book, A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, received widespread critical acclaim.

Also by Laura Cumming

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Praise for On Chapel Sands

“*Memoir of the Year* How we see -- and who see and what secrets they choose to share -- is at the heart of this exquisitely composed memoir... A peerless detective story that keeps you guessing to the end”

Helen Davies, The Sunday Times

“On Chapel Sands is much more than a search for truth. It is a moving, many-sided human story of great depth and tenderness, and a revelation of how art enriches life. In short, a masterpiece”

John Carey, Sunday Times

“Cumming skilfully withholds key twists in the tale, revealing them at just the right moment. There are surprises, but no shocks. Her prose is too elegant for such gaudiness – composed and restrained but empathetic”

Leaf Arbuthnot, The Times

“Brilliant... This book is a love letter to her [Cumming's] mother, whose warmth, articulacy and survival instincts shine though. It's also an intimate portrait of a village community, with its storybook characters (butcher, baker, dairyman, bell-ringer, gravedigger) and their wonderful old-fashioned names”

Blake Morrison, Guardian

“By turns beautiful, wistful, and ominous… the reasons behind the kidnap, and the repurcussions, are every bit as complex as any served up by fiction, and, oddly enough, the dénouement -- or succession of dénouements -- is just as satisfying, perhaps more so... a meditation on the way some people disappear, and time erases memory... so familiar as to be universal, and will probably ring bells with all but the sunniest reader (***** Five Stars)”

Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday

“A deeply felt, forensic yet ultimately empathetic examination of human motivation and its attendant sorrows, which is as much a social history of the early 20th century as it is the story of one family and its secrets… [Cumming's] intermeshing of art, time and memory is superlative… The repercussions are interrogated by Cumming with a hungry precision up to her last, revelatory pages”

Catherine Taylor, Daily Telegraph

“On Chapel Sands is a mystery solved through empathy and interpretation. It feels as if this is the book Cumming has been working towards, a deeply personal story but one that also draws on practised skills as a critic and a writer. It is perfectly balanced between the requirements of its narrative and the expression of its author's passions. It is a moving tribute from a daughter to her parents and grandparents. It is beautifully written”

Andy Miller, Spectator

“Unputdownable… this memoir-cum-detective story becomes a remarkable search for truth”

Charlotte Cox, Sunday Telegraph

“A fascinating, beautifully written feat of detective work, evoking bygone Britain during an era when so much was left unsaid”

Charlotte Heathcote, Daily Mail, *Book of the Week*

“A poetic blend of memoir and detective story… Cumming breathes new life into the form, with her art critic’s analysis of the family photographs which appear on many of the pages”

Marcus Field, Evening Standard

“On Chapel Sands is a fascinating read, as painstaking as an archaeological dig. Laura carefully sifts through years of fact, speculation and omission until the truth comes to light”

Eithne Farry, Sunday Express

“Wonderful, haunting... a poetic study in half-lights and fragments... a moving meditation... It is intimate and yet, at a slant, draws in a larger web of moments beyond the limits of the frame”

Lucy Lethbridge, Literary Review

“This is a clear-eyed and careful portrait of a family unravelling that stands out for the way in which it considers what isn’t being shown as much as what is”

Sarah Hughes

“Gripped from the sure-footed imagery of the opening sentence… the fragmentary style of the book gives way to a more lyrical tone… The lyricism of her relationship with images…is this book’s greatest gift”

Raffaella Barker, Oldie

“This utterly enthralling family memoir draws you into a mystery from the childhood of the author's mother... spellbinding... [Cumming] has also woven in photographs and artworks, which beautifully illuminate and complement the narrative”

Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller

“A modern masterpiece”

Guardian, *Summer Read of 2019*

“An outstanding investigation into a family’s secrets and a revelation of how art enriches life”

Sunday Times, *Summer Reads of 2019*

“There can be no more gripping read than Observer art critic Laura Cumming's On Chapel Sands... Nothing is as it seems right up to the last page of this modern masterpiece”

James Le Fanu, Tablet, *Summer reads of 2019*

“Its pleasures are slow, cumulative and utterly absorbing, it would be the perfect choice for a holiday with long stretches of reading time… A wonderful meditation on the half-truths and half-lights that make up our understanding of a life”

Lucy Lethbridge, Tablet, *Summer reads of 2019*

“An absolute masterpiece. A book bursting with love – love lost and love found, love misunderstood, unsaid and denied. I was spellbound by Laura Cumming’s warm, intelligent, searching voice and her intense scrutiny of images to reveal the unexpected and make us think again. I am in complete awe. A beguilingly lovely book – as big as the sea”

Keggie Carew, author of Dadland

“An absolutely utterly transfixing narrative which I could hardly bear to leave in order to go to sleep at night and which I could not wait to wake up to in the morning, writing of such sublime beauty that I delighted in page after page, and above all a story of such emotional power, not only about Laura’s mother, but also about Laura herself, that sometimes I found myself putting my copy down just to take a moment to breathe”

Juliet Nicolson, author of A House Full of Daughters

“An intricately structured and perfectly written swirl of memoir, history and art: the prose equivalent of beautifully marbled paper. I adored it”

Adèle Geras

“A true masterpiece: an unveiling of family secrets written in prose of the utmost beauty, and an astonishing act of filial love. Read it!”

Jonathan Coe

“Exquisitely written, compelling and painful”

Amanda Craig

“[An] intriguing and beautiful book… Cumming summons a novelist’s skill, making it impossible to stop reading the unravelling story. Every chapter ends with a new discovery, or the potential for one, and right up to the very last page the serpentine revelations twist like an anaconda”

Sue Gaisford, Tablet

“Haunting, luminous and revelatory… one of the best memoirs in recent years”

Sarah Hughes, i, *Best books of 2019*

“[A] compelling, beautifully written book… Chapter by chapter, Cumming slowly pieces together an authentic portrait of her ancestors, a paean dedicated lovingly to her mother”

Jackie Annesley, Daily Mail

“Extraordinary… It is a scrupulously, luminously empathic book, and the work of a masterful storyteller”

Stephanie Cross, The Lady

“A remarkable new book, which blends mystery, memoir, art criticism and Lincolnshire history… The story may be unique but the themes are universal”

Yusef Sayed, Lincolnshire Life

“A profound and beautiful book… Cumming illuminate the darkness of secrets, shame and betrayal and their effects in a riveting book”

Kirsty McLuckie, Scotland on Sunday

“[An] excellent mystery memoir”


“The story, beautifully written, is enriched by Cumming’s skill at making pictures speak”

Mark Mazower, Financial Times

“On Chapel Sands is as compelling as any detective novel of the golden age. The rigour and pace of the writing, its themes of mistaken identity, confinement and sexual deceit are reminiscent of Josephine Tey”

Nancy Campbell, Times Literary Supplement

“Laura Cumming writes very beautifully and I take real pleasure in the prose”

Jacqueline Wilson, Time & Leisure

“On Chapel Sands is beautifully written, immersive and moving – and it’s one of the finest books of the year”

Will Gore, Spectator

“A haunting investigation into family trauma and secrets from a forgotten England that turns out to lie closer to the surface than anyone suspected. Turning detective, she [Laura Cumming] interrogates old snapshots with the forensic skill of a professional art critic”

Mark Mazower, New Statesman, *Books of the Year*

“On Chapel Sands starts by seeming to be about one kind of mystery but soon starts being about another, much more profound one… the subtlety and suspense of the narrative lies in the way Cumming allows details about their relationship to emerge slowly, like a photograph socking in developing fluid”

Bee Wilson, London Review of Books

“With her critic’s eye, Cumming turns detective to investigate who took her mother and tell a pacy story about relationships, pride and the ramifications of what goes unsaid”

Susannah Butter, Evening Standard, *Books of the Year*

“In a year strong in ingenious memoir, Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands…stood out, not just for its great storytelling but for Cumming’s wonderful ability to bring to life a Lincolnshire coastal community…its moods, characters and toxic secret-harbouring machinery”

Claire Harman, Evening Standard, *Books of the Year*

“This beautifully written memoir of family mystery proved one of the surprise hits of 2019”

James Marriot, The Times, *Books of the Year*

“[A] twisting literary mystery that also serves as a deeply moving love letter”

Claire Allfree, Metro, *Books of the Year*

“A complex story of family secrets, beautifully written, and illustrated”

Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday, *Books of the Year*

“A beautiful, multi-layered story full of lost love, human motivation and tender secrets”


“[A] bewitching blend of history and mystery”

Charlotte Heathcote, Daily Mirror

“A scrupulous work of storytelling, radiant with empathy and filial affection”

Hephzibah Anderson, Observer

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