Posted in Netgalley

All Adults Here by Emma Straub

This was an incredibly thoughtful and sensitive book, focused on family and emotional connections. So, it was a perfect read for a therapist to delve into. In Clapham, based in the Hudson Valley, we meet the family matriarch Astrid. Her story starts with a dramatic fatal accident as Astrid witnesses someone hit by a car, while on her way to the hair and beauty salon. Astrid knows the victim and experiences a weird mix of emotions, because it is someone she thinks about a lot, but really doesn’t like very much. She goes on to the salon where her friend Birdie is ready to comfort her, revealing that they are much more than friends. Slowly we are then introduced to the rest of Astrid’s family and the various dynamics within their relationships.

We meet Astrid’s granddaughter Cecelia, who is facing a big change as she moves towards her grandmother. Cecelia is almost expelled from school and Astrid’s son Nicky is sure that New York is not the best environment for his daughter. His wife Juliette is a dancer and they need to be based in the city, so they decide to send Cecelia to live with Astrid up state. Elliot, the older sibling, is married to Wendy and they’re coping with the birth of twin sons. The middle sibling, Porter, would love to have a baby but doesn’t have a man – well not one she should have. She’s occupied mainly with her goat farm but lives in the valley closer to Astrid.

Each individual family unit has its own issues, but I was most invested with Astrid herself and Cecelia. I loved that Astrid had a loving relationship with Birdie and the focus of embracing your sexuality and your true self, without judgements is very close to my heart. Cecelia has a lot of her grandmother in her. She doesn’t always do the right thing with regard to school and rules, but she has an innate sense of justice and is usually doing the wrong thing on someone else’s behalf. She makes a true friend in August and would always stand up for her, which becomes very important when August reveals she’s transgender. Often Cecelia is more mature than others in the family. For Astrid, the accident she witnesses is a catalyst for her to re-evaluate life and some of her decisions, especially towards her children. She decides to open up about her choice of life partner in Birdie. She also thinks about decisions she’s made or behaviour she’s had towards her children, and starts making apologies. She wonders whether she was too hard on them, and whether they’ve become good people as adults.

Having grown up in a small village I understand the dilemma each sibling has felt on whether to stay in the valley or whether they’re only seen as successful if they get out to the big city like Nicky. All of the siblings were real and well rounded characters who could have easily populated their own novel. The author is clearly a keen observer of human nature. She’s very perceptive too as it’s almost as if she can read people’s thoughts. These characters have a rich inner life! She really throws issues and problems at them too, only some of which their mother is aware of. Yet the tone of the novel remains bright and lively, which is an incredible skill. My only criticism is that I think a more focused book on just Astrid and Cecilia’s storylines might have worked better, especially considering the contrasting societal pressures when Astrid was younger. This was an intelligent and absorbing read, full of psychological insight and wisdom.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce.

#MissBensonsBeetle #RandomThingsTours #blogtour

Rachel Joyce’s books are always full of charm, emotion and character growth. Often, while undertaking life altering feats of stamina and strength, her characters reveal themselves to the reader slowly like the peeling layers of an onion. This novel is no exception when it comes to a central character who has a pilgrimage to make, but for some reason this one hit me right in the heart. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman of a certain age. It could be because I’m not thin or conventionally pretty. It may be because I also have unfulfilled ambitions. Whatever the reason, Miss Benson brought a huge lump to my throat. So many things moved me: her unspoken love for a man who never even considers a relationship with her; her difficulty conforming to the post-war standards of beauty and fashion; her introvert nature and feeling of being out of step with other women. I loved the growth that comes from realising she is the only one who can follow her dream. I loved the relationship she builds with Edith, an assistant she didn’t want or expect. I’m always moved when people realise that they don’t fit in because they aren’t being themselves. Miss Benson doesn’t fit with ordinary people, not because she’s inferior, but because she is extraordinary.

We join Margery Benson as she is teaching in a girl’s school, bored and under appreciated. On this particular day, the girls draw an image of Margery that shocks and upsets her. There is a sudden realisation that this is how people see her. Something snaps and Margery simply packs up and walks out, for some inexplicable reason with a pair of hockey/ lacrosse boots under her arm. Joyce takes us back to the past when Margery was a little girl, sitting at her father’s desk being taught about beetles. He tells her about a place called New Caledonia, right at the bottom of the world where a Golden Flower Beetle lives, on a particular type of orchid. One afternoon, while reading about the beetle her father goes to answer the door. All Margery hears is her father say ‘All? What? ALL?’ He then returns to the study, takes something from his drawer and walks past her as if she isn’t there, into the garden. There he blows his brains out with his pistol, without saying another word. These two events are linked. If Margery was different, she might have gone home after seeing the cruel photo drawn by her pupils and done the same, but for some reason this mid-life realisation seems to galvanise her. For so long her most precious belongings were her beetle necklace, a pocket guide of New Caledonia and a map of its terrain. She remembered the moment she decided, in her childhood determination, that when she grew up she would go to the island and search for the Golden Beetle. Then something happened and she settled for being a middle aged teacher. She knew she’d let herself go and she also knew she didn’t have a single friend to help her. Similarly though, she doesn’t have a single friend to stop her.

Rachel Joyce has written a love song to all women who have unlived potential inside them. Margery does what many of us want to do. She throws the old life away and starts again. I loved the friendship that grows between Margery and her assistant Enid Pretty. Enid was, quite literally, her last choice for the job, but she turns out to be the perfect candidate. As Margery suffers horrendous seasickness on the boat, Enid simply rolls up her sleeves and gets on with helping. She supplies and scrubs buckets, keeps her hydrated and never once shies away from the difficult jobs. Margery thought she needed a scientist to accompany her, but no one could possibly be as resourceful as Enid, even if her methods are slightly questionable. When her equipment is lost Margery thinks the trip is over, but Enid magics up replacements for all their equipment and even a jeep to take them into the mountains. Enid has an eye for a good looking man, but usually the wrong sort. Her lifetime’s ambition is to be a mother and she approaches this with the same dogged determination Margery has shown to finding the beetle. If you think the two ambitions are incompatible you are underestimating these women and their bond with each other.

The most incredible thing is the effect Enid has on Margery’s view of herself. From trying to be a ‘proper’ woman and failing. Enid makes her see that she doesn’t have to try. Once they are in the thick of climbing the mountain, searching in sunshine and one of the worst storms the island has seen, Margery realises she feels comfortable with her body. She looks down and instead of her giant dress, she’s wearing the stolen boots, shorts and a man’s shirt. Yet she has never felt more herself. Joyce cleverly gives us examples of how women are expected to be, such as the English wives in the local village. When Enid and Margery go and talk to their group about their mission they come up against some suspicion. The wives are worried about Enid and see her as a threat because of her bleached hair and tight clothing. Margery is a ‘big’ woman and dwarfs the tiny and delicate women at the gathering. She feels awkward. As soon as one of the wives hears about a burglary at the school and a jeep going missing the gossip begins. Then when the English newspapers arrive with the story of a femme fatale who killed her husband and fled the country. They wonder, could this woman and the flirty Enid Pretty be one and the same person?

I felt completely immersed in New Caledonia and the women’s expedition. Joyce brought to life the heat, the lush greenery, the sheer volume of different species and the changeable weather. I was desperate for them to be successful and find this magical beetle. I won’t reveal the ending, but it was a perfect moment that brought a tear to my eye. Tension builds towards the end as we wonder whether the strange man, stalking them throughout the novel, will actually catch up, or if the village women will take their suspicions to the authorities. I was desperate that their mission wouldn’t come to a premature end and that they would plot their escape together, even if it had to be a Thelma and Louise style ending. The book teaches us that it’s okay to be different and that once you live authentically, you will find your people. If we choose to live within societies constraints we might always feel like a misfit; not fitting in can feel painful, but it always feels like freedom. Women can play it safe, but then think of the friendship and adventures you could miss out on. Margery also learns that the joy comes not in realising your dreams, but in continuing to pursue them. This is a strongly feminist piece of work that spoke to me deeply about fulfilling my purpose and the importance of my female friendships. However, the most important relationship is always with ourselves and freedom comes in realising we only have one life and we don’t get another chance to pursue our dreams.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Cry of the Lake by Charlie Tyler.

#RandomThingsTours #blogtour #TheCryOfTheLake

Firstly I was drawn in by the beautiful cover art on this novel. The red title contrasting sharply with the shades of grey background, and a human skull eerily visible against the flock wallpaper pattern. Even the blurb is fascinating and magical, as a young girl tries to capture a mermaid in the pond at the bottom of the garden. She’s been told stories of Myrtle the mermaid with a crown of flowers singing ‘as I went down to the river to pray’. However, instead of Myrtle she finds a dead body. Confused and terrified she learns to take the memory and lock it away deep inside her mind. Yet, still she sees the mermaid in dreams, luring her down to the water with her beautiful singing voice. She sleepwalks and finds herself out in the garden at night, barefoot and cold from the dew on the grass. In order to stop these ‘night terrors’ she is medicated. Although she is a maelstrom of emotions and experiences Lily will not talk. Ten years down the line Lily’s mother Grace is marrying Tony, who has his own teenage daughter Flo. Flo and Lily strike up a friendship despite Lily’s silence and find ways of communicating through text and scribbles on notepads. When Flo’s father is accused of killing a schoolgirl, the girls join forces to find out what’s really happened, but this opens up Lily’s past. Now she must force herself back to that boathouse in order to unearth what really happened and who is responsible.

The author has written a great debut here where she skilfully wrong foots the reader and subverts expectation. That very first line – ‘Death smells of macaroons’ – it drew me into the story. I knew it was going to be sugary sweet on the surface with a nasty aftertaste – a description that suits our narrator Grace perfectly. From the cover I was expecting an older setting, but this is as modern as it gets. Small details, such as Grace dressing from the Joules catalogue, or the teenagers coming into the cafe for Frappuccino’s set this firmly within the 21st Century. The author also places terrible and disturbing events in beautiful, lush countryside full of wild garlic and bluebells. The setting is idyllic, but the events are far from it. I had the sense of the opening of Dorian Gray where something lush and overblown like lilies or lilacs, give out a scent is so strong it’s cloying.

The jump from one narrator to another kept me on my toes too. I did get confused from time to time about who was who, especially when we moved back and forth in time. The characters are fascinating. We meet Lily and her mum Grace as they are coming to an exciting time in their lives. Grace is about to be engaged to Tom and she is the perfect girlfriend, with a plan for a traditional wedding. She and Lily live in a cottage and work in Tom’s cafe. Grace doesn’t want them to live together until they’re married. She thinks pre-marital sex would be a bad example for their daughters. Of course Lily also has health problems. She has selective mutism, and a sleep disorder causing sleepwalking and night terrors that need heavy medication. Tom’s daughter Flo gets along really well with Lily, and has encouraged her to communicate using texts. They also get along well in the village, the only fly in the ointment, as far as Grace is concerned, is Tom’s ex Annie the local police woman. It slowly becomes clear that she has deliberately lured Tom away from Annie and feels threatened by their easy intimacy and connection, as well as Annie’s continued friendship with Flo.

Grace is simply trying too hard though. Lily thinks she dresses like she’s colour blind or she copies the model in the catalogue exactly. At the village picnic Lily is a amused by how overdressed Grace is – in the catalogue the outfit would have been set off with a fascinator, but Grace has had to contain herself with a ribbon round her straw hat. Whilst Annie rolls up in denim with a carrier bag of corned beef sandwiches and pickled onion Monster Munch, Grace has smoked salmon on vintage china. Everything is just so. Except Flo doesn’t like fish. The reader starts to glimpse beneath this drive for perfection – it is simply a thin veneer covering a much darker heart. Her sugary sweet exterior is as real as her flowing red hair. When schoolgirl Amelie goes missing, Lily knows exactly where she is, because she had to help Grace package her body on the kitchen floor. Grace is as meticulous at cleaning up after the crime as she was at packing a picnic. After disposing of the body, Lily is forced to strip and get in the shower. Then Grace is waiting with hot milk and her pills. Lily’s often so spaced out that she doesn’t know what’s real and what isn’t.

The author reveals that Grace’s adoration of Tom is an act too. In a passage as they snuggle on the sofa, Grace’s real feelings belie her actions:

‘I sat, legs curled up on the sofa, with Tom’s arm draped around my shoulders. The heaviness of his body; the musky scent of his cologne and the graze of his cheek against mine made me feel nauseous. I suppose, if I were forced to be objective, I could see why Annie had been attracted to him and sometimes, when we kissed, the pit of my stomach whirred with a brief flutter of desire. Desire which was quickly followed by a flood of disgust. Tom Marchant was a pathetic liar of a man and every ounce of his being repulsed me.’

This is not just a passing dislike, this is a hatred that runs deep. There is a past here that is complicated and disturbing. Is the key Myrtle the Mermaid? The intriguing event that Lily dreams about and has been in therapy for, way back in the past. This started with a fairytale told to her by Grace and Uncle Frank, accompanied by the folk song Down to the River to Pray. Lily hears snatches of it in her dreams. Again, while this sounds like a beautiful story, it comes about around the time that Lily stopped speaking and Grace’s hair turned white overnight. How lucky the girls were to be looked after by Uncle Frank who ran an institute for mental well-being and was involved with pioneering mental health drugs. Lily was seen by a young junior doctor who used a visualisation method to help her with the feelings that disturbed her. He tells her to imagine somewhere she enjoys, and Lily chooses the aquarium with a treasure chest on the sea floor where she can lock away those memories that disturb her. She chooses a key decorated with a spiders web and mimes locking the chest. Then, when she feels safer, they can slowly unlock the chest and taking out one image at a time to work on. Yet this part of the therapy never happened and Lily was left with all these images locked up inside.

Back at the picnic, the villagers were horrified to find human remains in the lake. Could they belong to Amelie? In the aftermath, Grace agrees that they should all be together, so she and Lily stay over with Tom and Flo. Next morning Flo is horrified to find her beloved fish all dead in the garden pond, the telltale blue of slug pellets lingering on the bottom. Flo calls Annie and she comes out to question everyone. Grace and Tom seem oddly tense, but Flo remembers seeing pond scum on the floor and didn’t Grace put Lily in a shower in the night? As the study the pond Annie sees something else submerged in the rushes. It’s a bundle of shoes, tied together with a pair of knickers and it looks incriminating. There’s no option but to question Tom, remove phones and laptops and start to ask if anyone has noticed Tom getting a little too close to one of his students. Annie isn’t so sure. She confides in Flo that she can’t investigate the case, but she’s suspicious that it all looks a bit too cut and dried. Also, if you were really trying to keep evidence hidden, why would you draw attention to it by committing another crime?

There’s never a moment to to stop and contemplate though. The different perspectives and timelines keep revealing new clues and new horrors. There were times where I had to go back and reread a section to be sure I’d got the right sequence of events, especially where people’s names have changed. That’s mainly because the story is addictive and the pace is relentless. Over 24 hours I was rarely without my head in this book because I was so involved in all the little twists and turns. I wanted to understand how Lily and Grace had become so psychologically disturbed. I had a hunch that Lily would start to make more sense once Grace stopped giving her such strong medication. I also sensed she was a lot stronger than she thought, but the gaslighting kept her in doubt. I was fascinated in finding out what had formed Grace’s personality and sometimes drove her to be so cruel and cunning. I couldn’t stop reading until the tangled web was unravelled. Until Lily’s treasure chest of memories was unlocked and she was able to speak freely again. You will want to keep reading until she does. This is a tale about the heart of darkness, in the beautiful country village that’s an urban dweller’s dream; original, addictive and deliciously, darkly funny.

Posted in Random Things Tours

One Step Behind by Lauren North. #RandomThingsTours #OneStepBehind

I found myself sucked in very quickly by this narrator and her mysterious story. Jenna is an A and E doctor and appears to have a picture perfect life. She’s well regarded in her work, has a good marriage to builder Stuart, two lovely children and a beautiful Victorian house. They’ve recently adapted downstairs to create a huge living area that opens onto the garden. From the outside she’s living the 21st Century dream, but when we look a little closer it’s not that simple. There’s the mother’s guilt of course, she worries about Beth and Archie and the difficulties of spending enough time with then while working 12 hour shifts. Stuart picks up the slack as he can set his own hours, and they have a great childminder in Christie, but she still worries that she’s selfish in pursuing her career the way she does. They’re proving to be a great parenting team, but sometimes Jenna and Stuart are like ships that pass in the night. Finally, the main cause of stress in her life is an unknown stalker, who has been making her life hell. She is followed, the garden is broken into, dolls and flowers are left for her and the emails, both at work and home are endless. The stress has been so bad she hasn’t been sleeping, she’s becoming paranoid and wants to put the house up for sale and start again elsewhere.

Her narrative is alternated with that of Sophie, a personal trainer who lives with her boyfriend Nick and seems very concerned about the welfare of her younger brother, Matthew. Matt is a bit of an oddball. He seems to wander aimlessly around town taking photos of people, he also seems secretive and uncooperative with his sister. I wondered whether Sophie was a bit of a mother hen character, but they seem to have no other family either. It seemed inevitable that the two narratives would come together in some way, or that one of them might be Jenna’s stalker. However, I couldn’t think of any link between them because Jenna is too young to be their mother and she never mentions brothers and sisters. As the stalker escalates into leaving dressed dolls, and even getting into their home, I started to feel panicky too. I also suspected every person around Jenna, from Thomas who works with her at the hospital and is a little too friendly, all they way to her husband Stuart. Every single male she was in contact with came under my suspicion at different points in the novel. So, when Matthew is brought into A and E after being hit by a bus and she recognises him, I breathed a sigh of relief that maybe her ordeal was over. Could it be that simple?

The author really puts her heroine through the mill in terms of the relationships around her and a series of betrayals. These come to a head on a night out in town for her best friend Diya’s birthday. She had just been told to take a leave of absence from work and she finds out that the complaint made to management about her fitness to practice came from Diya. She is shocked and feels betrayed. She also sees her childminder Christie, with Matt’s sister Sophie and Rachel – a mum from school that she’s sure doesn’t like her. Immediately she wonders if either Christie or Rachel has been helping to keep her stalker informed. However the next morning, an even worse betrayal comes to light. Christie comes round to explain why she was with Rachel, but also to confess to knowing something that will break our Jenna’s heart. This is where she really starts to come apart. Her worse fears are being realised, while her attention has been focused on her job and the stalker, her life has been falling apart around her.

This was a successful story in that it made me feel paranoid and on edge a lot of the way through. I also felt very tense, because I was desperate for Jenna to give herself a break. It was like she was juggling so many plates at once and couldn’t stop. I just wanted her to find a way to get a break, spend more time with those she loved and create some balance in her life. No one could sustain the level of stress she puts herself under. Much as I want to say women can be successful working mums, it’s clear that Jenna’s working hours are unsustainable if she wants a better relationship with her children. I also kept wondering where this couple’s genuine family and friends are? It takes a strong network to sustain a lifestyle this crazy – even without the stalker. It was very clever to keep shifting the possible identity of the stalker. There was a final stand off that made me look at my own biases when it comes to this type of crime and I think that was deliberate on the part of the author. I also realised at the end that I couldn’t remember the name of our protagonist at first, even though she narrated the majority of the book. That tells me a little about how much the character was consumed by her job and the crime being perpetrated against her. It was almost as if, by being constantly watched, she had become invisible to those around her. This was an unsettling, tense and addictive read that explores how childhood trauma affects people in different ways.

Posted in Netgalley

The Storm by Amanda Jennings. #HQ #NetGalley #TheStorm

Last year, Amanda Jennings book The Cliff House was one of books I’d most enjoyed for its wonderful sense of place, complex characters and gripping storyline. I was so excited to be offered the chance to read her new novel with NetGalley and I’ve spent the last two days utterly gripped by the story of Hannah. Hannah lives a life that a lot of people wish for: the big historic house; a handsome husband who’s in demand as a lawyer; enough money not to work, spending her hours walking her dog in the picturesque countryside and tend her garden. Her husband Nathan is attentive, and takes her to the best restaurants, brings her flowers and gifts of jewellery not because it’s her birthday, but ‘just because’. Yet, Hannah is deeply unhappy and plagued by memories of the past self she lost long ago. To get to the bottom of Hannah’s unhappiness we need to see behind the walls of her beautiful home and back to the late 1990s when she was carefree, working in her parent’s bakery and in love with a boy called Cam Stewart.

The book is split into different viewpoints and timelines, so the story is drip fed slowly with past events informing the present as we go along. The chapters are those pesky short ones that make you think ‘just one more’ until it’s 2am! This was definitely one of those situations when I had a good book and no respect for tomorrow. Through Hannah’s eyes we see the current state of her marriage to Nathan Cardew. What outsiders see as attentive, we can now see is control. Nathan’s family have lived in Cornwall for generations, but it is also the place where Nathan’s father committed suicide in his study by blowing his head off with a shotgun. This terrible incident could be the reason behind Nathan’s behaviour, but he is a classic insecure psychological abuser. Hannah and their son Alex are controlled down to the minute. Hannah does not drive, holds no credit cards or money in her own right and is not permitted to work. As far as Nathan is aware she has no friends, but behind his back she meets Vicky, her friend from their teenage years, just once a fortnight. They meet in the local cafe and Vicky brings Hannah the cigarettes she secretly smokes under a tree near her house. She has had to learn to cover her tracks well, because at teatime (at 5pm sharp) Nathan will ask for the return of his card and receipts for all the shopping she has done, down to the last penny. Nathan controls every area of Hannah’s life from her access to money and the outside world, to what she wears, and when they have sex. Yet Hannah tells the reader that she chose this, that marriage to Nathan was a choice and her own fault.

Hannah’s narration slips back to 1998, and the small fishing port of Newlyn where her parents have a bakery. By day she works in the bakery and at night she goes out with Vicky, visits the local pub and falls in love with a boy who works on a trawler. Cam has lived with local couple Sheila and Martin and their son Davy for many years. Both Cam and Davy work as fishermen, but their relationship can be antagonistic because Davy feels that his parents favour Cam. He refers to him as a cuckoo in the nest. Through Cam’s narration we see how he falls in love with the beautiful girl from the bakery. We also see the tough life of the trawler man and the difficult choices he has to make daily between earning a decent wage and putting the men’s lives on the line, especially when he knows a storm is brewing. The men exchange banter and give Cam a good ribbing about his girlfriend, although Davy is perhaps hoping to hit home with his news that Hannah once had a fancy date with Nathan Cardew who is now away working in Paris. Cam doesn’t care, he knows he loves her and they spend cozy evenings tucked away on Cam’s boat on an old sleeping bag. We start to see that Hannah’s current life hinges on one day when a terrible storm threatens the trawler while still out at sea. Cam has a choice, to spend a bit longer out at sea while the catch is good and risk being hit by the storm on their way back to port, or to prioritise their safety and accept a lower payday. His decision leads to a terrible accident that affects the whole crew. Their return to Newlyn culminates in a night out at the pub, where a shocked Cam is in one space with a resentful Davy, Nathan Cardew, who has just returned from Paris, is looking for Hannah, and finally Hannah herself is there with Vicky. The emotional storm that unfolds on this evening is so powerful it shapes all of their lives until the present day and puts the storm they experienced at sea into the shade.

Having been a victim of psychological abuse in a previous relationship, and managing to walk away after five years, I was desperate for Hannah to leave Nathan and walk away with her son Alex. It was the combination of wanting this escape, but also wondering how she got stuck in this relationship in the first place, that pushed me forward and kept me reading. I loved the way that past and present started colliding and Alex was the catalyst for that. Alex starts to question his dad’s behaviour and challenge his rules. Firstly he rebels in small ways such as coming in late for tea or drinking a can of coke in the house. Eventually, the tension comes to a head and having read his mum’s teenage diary Alex puts two and two together and goes looking for Cam. He can’t believe Nathan is his father, and suspects his Mum has kept a secret from him. The truth is the only thing that can create healing in this situation, but it will have to tear apart the status quo before that healing can happen.

Jennings has written another intense and believable psychological thriller, that’s gripping and full of twists and turns. Every character jumps off the page, and I love the detail of Cornwall, a place I love dearly. Hannah and Alex’s ending had a wisdom and integrity to it that I’m sure the author fought for above a more traditional ‘happy’ ending. It felt satisfying while still leaving the door open for what happens next. I have no doubt that this book will be as big a success as her last.

Posted in Personal Purchase

The Heatwave by Kate Riordan. #bookblogger #amreading #TheHeatwave

‘You fit into me like a hook into an eye, a fish hook an open eye’. Margaret Atwood

That opening quote really set the scene for me as a reader. It’s a shocking image. You read the first part and imagine the joining of two things meant to be together, made for each other in fact. The second part is visceral, violent and brings up images of the tussle between an angler and a fish; opposing forces, locked together in battle. Our narrator is Sylvie, born in France but now living in London with her daughter Emma. She’s divorced from Emma’s father Guy, who now lives in Paris with his second wife and young sons. It’s summer and Sylvie receives a message about their french home La Revieres. This is where Sylvie and her sister Camille grew up, but the family haven’t been there for ten years and vandals have started a small fire in one of the outbuildings. Sylvie decides its time to sell and plans for her and Emma to drive over to France for a small holiday, in order to tidy the house and put it on the market. As soon as they arrive, an unease starts to build in Sylvie and Emma, a sense that someone is watching them. What is the secret at the heart of this family and why is La Revieres so significant they haven’t been able to go back till now?

The book moves into three main time lines as Sylvie’s tale moves back and forth. The author builds a tense, oppressive atmosphere slowly. There’s the oppression of the heat, a window banging in the night in an unused room, and the menace of boys on mopeds driving up to the house at night. We realise Sylvie has a horrible unease about the unused room that belonged to ‘her’, where she still feels her presence. The novel takes us back to the early years of Sylvie and Guy’s marriage, when after an experience of loss, they have a little girl, but this is not Emma, this is Elodie. Sylvie describes an immediate, fierce love that she feels for her daughter. Elodie is perfect, with a little heart shaped face and eyes that develop into two distinct colours. One eye is almost amber and full of life, whereas the other remains blue with a deadness to it that is disconcerting. Her eyes are an outward signal of a duality in Elodie’s personality, part of her is loving and engaged with life but Sylvie also sees a side that is disobedient, manipulative and out of step with other people’s emotions.

I was so infuriated for Sylvie that Greg simply doesn’t see the same things she does, at times it feels like he’s being deliberately obtuse. He’s away so much with work and only seems to see the cute side of Elodie as she nestles in his lap. He sees her as an overwhelmed Mum, seeing something that isn’t there or overreacting to normal childhood naughtiness. Elodie’s outbursts do seem personal. She takes an inlaid wood jewellery box given to Sylvie by her father and carves an E deep into the lid. One day Sylvie finds her intent on something in the garden and finds she has eviscerated a small lizard. Finally, she visits a specialist who mentions the word I was already thinking – psychopathy. He explains that some children are born with a difference to the amygdala in the brain which leaves them unable to comprehend or recognise emotion. They need extra stimulus in order to feel. His assessment is that Elodie is one of those people, some grow out of the behaviour, whereas others remain unable to connect and display violent behaviour. Sylvie is devastated. This is her little girl, she would die for her, but has just had to admit that she’s afraid of her too. In the meantime, my tension is rising, because as I’m reading this devastating diagnosis I’m also wondering what Elodie’s reaction was when Emma was born.

The relationship between Sylvie and her daughter is so intense that it’s no wonder she still feels her presence in the family home. Emma wants information about her older sister and remonstrates with Sylvie; ‘

‘she was my sister, but I know barely anything about her, she died, you and Dad split up. We came to London. That’s it.’

It seems inevitable now they’re here that they will have to address the past. In the day Emma is finding Elodie’s old clothes, is wearing her turquoise necklace, but at night she’s on edge and scared there’s someone in the garden. Sylvie feels her too, almost as if she’s there, but has flitted just out of sight. Even their conversation about her hangs in the air like a spectre, wearing the glowing white sundress Emma has found.

‘Do you think her ghost might be here at La Reverie? The loosed words swirl in the gloom, bright and unearthly, like phosphorescence’.

Then, after a day out with their friend Olivier, and with the sulphurous smell of forest fires hanging in the air, they arrive back at La Reverie and Emma’s eyes suddenly come alive as a figure appears on the drive. Expecting her to blow away with the smoke, Sylvie’s thoughts race as her past and present collides into each other. It’s her. Could it be Elodie?

When I finished this novel I found I’d been holding my jaw really tight. Waiting for the past to reveal itself and others to see what Sylvie can is gripping. As the second part of the book begins we have another game of cat and mouse unfolding. It made me think about the lengths we would go to in order to protect our child and what it would take to change or override that instinct. How can we continue that protection, if it is at the expense of our other children? There are ghosts at La Reverie, not just the ghost of the Elodie who disappeared, but the Elodie that Sylvie and Greg expected when she first came into the world. Perhaps even before that, to the hope they had when that first flicker of life was felt after so much sadness.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. #RandomThingsTours #blogtour #FleishmanIsInTrouble

I really enjoy books with psychological insight and no one does psychological self-exploration like rich New Yorkers. Fleishman is a forty-something hepatologist, recently divorced from ambitious wife Rachel and discovering a whole new world of dating options. It sounds like a Woody Allen film, and there is some humour in his situation. Still as short and pathetic as he was in his teenage years full of romantic rejection, he was starting to ask himself whether he could actually be attractive? Or was it more the case that looks were not sexual currency any more and being a newly divorced doctor in NYC was enough to warrant the attention he was receiving, from the dating apps downloaded to his phone by a work colleague. He was being sent side-boob, aubergine emojis, ass crack and devils with little horns from women who were available right now, and for nothing more than ‘no strings’ sex. However, despite this huge change in how women date he is still processing what went wrong in his marriage to Rachel, a woman he describes as having the perfect geometric hair of a blonde Cleopatra. As the novel opens, Toby Fleishman wakes up to find a text message from his ex-wife to say she has used the emergency key he gave her, to drop the children at his flat in the night because she had to go on a work trip. This is a huge imposition, although he loves being with his children, because he has things to do, work to go to and social plans in place. Rachel may as well have left a note saying ‘welcome to being a woman’.

It soon becomes clear that the author has reversed the gender roles in Toby’s marriage. He has a great job, but he is the one who takes the children to school and changes his schedule to accommodate pick ups, but this only makes sense. Toby has a lack of ambition that drives Rachel to distraction, while she travels all over the world for her job as a PR consultant and also has a busy social life. Even though Toby, and our narrator, are quite scathing about her, I could understand her trying to live up to that ideal of having it all. Isn’t it what the media tells us all women want? This is a common misconception for both men and women; having it all is possible, just not all at the same time. Rachel comes across as quite a negative character, but perhaps that’s down to the people narrating and analysing her. I didn’t find Toby a very sympathetic character either. I think this was a bias in me, it’s hard to sympathise with Upper East Side New Yorkers who are high earning professionals, when you’ve been brought up in council houses.

These characters can do anything they want. They’ve forgotten that where they are in life is a series of choices made; Rachel has chosen to pursue her ambitions and become a Mum. Toby has an incredibly rewarding career, but he has also chosen to have children and be the one who leaves work early to accommodate that. They could make different choices, but don’t seem to know this. Maybe this is the downside to being at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need, because once you’ve self-actualised there’s a lot of space for introspection. However, despite the level of introspection and analysis these characters do, they’re not very self-aware. I found this novel so psychologically astute when dissecting modern marriage, parenthood and divorce. There are beautiful passages early on where our narrator discusses the deterioration of marriage and trying to move on. Toby keeps meeting people who want to know when the rot set in:

‘These questions weren’t really about him; no they were questions about how perceptive people were and what they missed and who else was about to announce their divorce and whether the undercurrent of tension in their own marriages would eventually lead to their demise’.

More people divorce these days and there is still a value judgement made, because older generations seemed to stay together. Were they immune to the misery of marriage difficulties? If a marriage is struggling, how do we make the decision to leave?

‘How miserable is too miserable?’

In a discussion with his old friend, and our narrator Libby, Toby talks about how hindsight and perspective can change our views of the whole marriage. Does the fact the marriage ended, mean it was wrong right from the start? He likens it to a game of Othello where you start out with a board full of white discs, but they slowly become black:

‘Now you look at the marriage, even the things that were formally characterised as good memories, as tainted and rotten from the start’.

His therapy sessions ring very true, his therapist Carla is working with him on sitting with uncomfortable feelings. So, when having conversations with people who are mining him for information he tries to pass that lesson on:

‘He was working on trying not to fill in this pause; he was working on letting the discomfort of the silence be the property of the person who was mining him for dirt.’

A further awakening comes about after Rachel leaves and doesn’t return, leaving Toby to cope with work, their children Solly and Hannah, and the maelstrom of remembering the children’s heavy schedule, plus the age of social media and mobile phones with a surly teenager. This leads to a certain understanding of Rachel’s position as his career starts to suffer and he realises the full responsibilities of modern parenthood.

Then the author switches to Rachel’s perspective and we see their marriage in a totally different light. She feels that Toby is intent on being unhappy. He sees her success as the reason for his failure, when actually her success allowed him to do exactly what he wanted for a living. From his perspective, Rachel does nothing but work and neglect him and the children. He never asks whether she’s happy. When she gets home he regales her with his problems, and never lets her put her feet up and relax for a minute. She doesn’t consider divorce:

‘She never once thought she deserved happiness. She never once wondered if there was something better out there. This was their marriage; this was their family. It was theirs, they owned it, they made it. If there was one thing she’d learned from her grandmother, it was an understanding that life isn’t always what you want it to be’.

It’s hard to believe this novel was a debut, because it was so insightful and contains a wisdom about the 21st Century attitude to relationships, marriage and divorce as well as the differences between men and women. It sheds a light on unacknowledged differences between men and women in society. It’s sharply observed and describes life in upper class New York beautifully. These people are so remote from me that it was almost like having the habitat and behaviour of a rare animal presented as a study. Fleishman is the subject of the book, but the main perspectives I took away were those of Rachel and Libby. The author presses home the idea that we never truly know the inner world of those we are most intimate with. He sees Rachel as this strong bossy career woman, when actually she’s incredibly fragile. I couldn’t help but think that if Fleishman is in trouble, then Rachel is on the edge.

Posted in Netgalley

The Truants by Kate Weinberg. #NetGalley #Bloomsbury #TheTruants

No one is quite what they seem in Kate Weinberg’s novel The Truants. Jess is a typical middle child in a middle class family, she feels overlooked and under appreciated. She thinks university is going to kick start her life, especially if she can be taught by her academic idol Lorna Clay. One Christmas an uncle had bought the family her book The Truants and Jess has chosen her university specifically to be taught by Lorna. In Freshers Week, full of a cold, she receives an email telling her she has been removed from Professor Clay’s class. Furiously she pens an email explaining that her only reason for coming to Norfolk was to take that class, venting her disappointment. She presses send and regrets it almost immediately. However, the return email isn’t what she expected. She is informed she has been moved to Professor Clay’s other module on Agatha Christie.

Also in Fresher’s week, Jess makes her first friend in Georgie, who finds her feeling ill and helps out. They start to enjoy university as a fresher should, getting out to parties, exploring campus and meeting other students. Georgie meets a South African journalist on a fellowship and disappears for a few days. Then takes Jess to a party where Alec will meet them. Unfortunately for Jess they’ve met before. While out running through the woods she comes across a hearse that is totally out of place. As she walks towards it she sees a coffin in the back, with two intertwined bodies inside. Before she can walk away the man looks up and straight into Jess’s eyes. She notices the blue iris, perfect except for a tiny splash of hazel. Now, at the party she is staring into the same eyes, but knowing that it wasn’t Georgie in the coffin with him.

This is a very intelligent and gripping novel, full of complex characters. There’s almost a pattern to the relationships, in that every one except Jess and Nick, who she meets at a party, is triangular. Lorna is able to see these patterns, and the weak points of a person, then uses this to exploit and play with them. At times she reminded me of a cat toying with a mouse, particularly where Jess is concerned. Jess has the traits of a borderline personality in that she has few boundaries and adopts the traits of the person she’s with. This is a very dangerous combination when we mix it with the hero worship she has for Lorna. Lorna’s partner, Professor Steadman, observes that perhaps she should be setting herself apart from her students rather than courting friendships with them. Lorna replies that she likes to spend time with people who interest her and sometimes that happens to be a student. Here she’s either missing his point, or being deliberately evasive. There can never be an equal relationship with her and a student because she is in a position of power over them. She is careless with these student’s lives.

Alec is another character who is careless with other people’s feelings. All of his relationships are triangular: him, Georgie and Jess; him, Jess and Nick; him, Georgie and the woman from the hearse. He has a way of weaving magic with his stories of South Africa, but he uses them to gain advantage, either to seduce, to diminish the other person’s point of view or feelings. There’s almost a sense of criticism, to tell a horrific or heroic story in order to manipulate the other person into thinking their feelings are silly or invalid by comparison to the hardship of others. He’s an accomplished liar, because he always uses some semblance of truth. He tells Jess of his difficult younger brother Sebastian (Basti) who would do something wrong and give Alec the blame. One particular story involves a yellow dressing table and a glass horse, which Basti throws from a window then blames Alec. Jess later finds out that this story is totally fabricated; Basti doesn’t exist in the form Alec represents and the glass horse never belonged to his mother, but to someone else very important to him and to Jess. The relationships are so entangled there has to be a moment when it all implodes.

I enjoyed watching the relationship with Lorna and Jess, as it moves from student/teacher to friends, then a motherly role. Just as you think she’s become a true friend, something else happens that leaves me questioning everything. I could never pin down whether something is for Jess or her own benefit. I think she likes Jess, as much as she can like anyone, but she always puts her own needs first. Jess wonders if perhaps her lover, Professor Steadman, had known Lorna best after all:

There was something unknowable at her centre, something that shifted and changed like a trick of the light. Something that Steady understood about her that had always been vanishing. That may have wanted to be mythologised and missed. But didn’t in fact, want to be found.

Jess has been trying to have a relationship with someone who didn’t really exist, not in a fixed and knowable form. Lorna strikes me as a character who would pop up somewhere else, inventing a totally new persona. I became obsessed with the unknowability of her and whether the whole mystery is planned from start to finish. Why does Lorna move Jess to her Agatha Christie class? Why does she draw attention to the poisons used in her novels right back in Jess’s first essay? I think the author talks to us through Lorna, warning us we can look too closely and try too hard to find the truth. The magic of this novel is the mystery.

Because in solving something, in pinning it down, in reducing it to one reality, something of the magic is lost?

Posted in Random Things Tours

Spirited by Julie Cohen. #RandomThingsTours #blogtours #Spirited

I had never read Julie Cohen’s work before so I didn’t know what to expect from her writing. Only a few weeks ago on Twitter I was discussing when a new Sarah Waters novel would be appearing and Spirited by Julie Cohen has definitely filled that gap. It’s also made an impact on me that’s all it’s own. Viola Worth has grown up cared for by her clergyman Father, as well as his ward, a little boy called Jonah. Viola and Jonah are the best of friends, spending their childhoods largely inseparable. As we meet them in adulthood, they are getting married, but in mourning. A lot has happened during the period of their engagement. Jonah had been out to India, staying at his family’s haveli and checking on his financial interests. For Viola, it’s been a tough time nursing, then losing, her father. He encouraged her in his own profession as a photographer and she has become accomplished in her own right. Viola’s father wanted her to marry Jonah, and they are still the best of friends, but the time apart has changed them and neither knows the full extent of the other’s transformation. As they try to settle into married life on the Isle of Wight, Jonah spends his time sketching fossil and bone finds with his scientific a friend. Viola feels cut adrift and without purpose, as we find out later she doesn’t even feel she is fulfilling her role as Jonah’s wife. Through new friends the couple meet a visiting spirit medium, although as daughter of a clergyman, Viola would never normally enjoy this type of entertainment. Little do they know, this woman will change their lives.

The author slips back and forth in time to tell us about Henriette, who worked her way in life from being a servant to a respected spirit medium. She is a woman who started with no advantage in life, and as a young servant models herself on the governess in the house, a French woman known as Madame to the family. Henriette diligently listens to the children’s French lesson and nurses a hope of a future where she doesn’t clean up after other people or have to wish for a roommate so she isn’t sexually assaulted in the night. Her attacker labels her a whore and one early morning, after there’s been a house party, she stumbles on a group of men in the stables betting. They are playing cards for money, but once they see Henriette they become intent on a different sport. It is Madame who interrupts the attackers and she gives Henriette advice from one woman surviving alone in the world to another. The author also takes us back to Jonah’s time in India. We discover that in social circles Jonah is a hero, because during a massacre he rescued a young girl who lived in his haveli after all her family are killed. Viola wonders if it is this experience that has changed Jonah. They live as if they are brother and sister, Jonah spends less time with her than before and at bedtime they still go to their separate bedrooms and sleep apart. Viola knows there is more between husband and wife but doesn’t really know what and has no idea who to talk to. Through Henriette, Viola is asked to take a photograph of a child who has died so the parents have an image to keep. No one is more stunned than Viola when she develops the image and sees a blurred figure standing next to the bed, the likeness to their child shocks and comforts the parents; they feel reassured that their child lives on in spirit. This experience, and her experience of her first proper female friendship, is like a floodgate opening for Viola. She starts to question the limits of her faith, whether there is more in life she would like to try and as time goes on, whether the burgeoning feelings she has for Henriette are friendship or something else.

I loved the feminist threads running through this novel. The central women in the novel are each in liminal spaces, different from the conventional Victorian women we see like Mrs Newham. Henriette is a self-made woman, unmarried and travelling from space to space offering her spiritualist services for enough to survive on. She has moved from bar girl, to servant, to nursing and losing her elderly husband, and now into a semi-respected occupation. She gets to visit the homes of those she might have once waited upon, but isn’t tied by their social rules and conventions. In India we meet Pavan, who has made the exceptional choice within her societal rules to become educated and has made huge sacrifices in order to achieve that. Love was not on her agenda, and when it comes she experiences a painful separation between her intellectual choice and her emotions. Viola may seem the most conventional of these women, but her relationship with her father has set her apart from others of her class. He believed in educating Viola the same way as Jonah, then teaches her the art of photography too, usually considered a male pastime. Viola is respectful of many conventions, but finds herself emboldened by Henriette and the new experiences she brings to her life. She tries bathing in the sea and is bold enough to start accepting her ‘gift’ of capturing spirits. Behind them all is the french governess Madame. The role of Victorian governess is the very definition of a liminal space: she works in the home but is not a servant, educated and unmarried, respectable, but not on the same level as the family she works for. She has power in that she works for herself, has and controls her own money and can choose to leave her position and join another family, in a different place. Her acknowledgment of Henriette’s fate, as a pretty face in the power of men, inspires Henriette to be more. It gives her aspiration, although she may never be a gentlewoman, with careful decision making she could be more like Madame.

It is within the physical liminal spaces where there are beautiful passages of writing from the author. The scene where Henriette and Viola go bathing is absolutely exquisite because I could feel everything. The strangeness of undressing in a darkened box on wheels, the feel of the swimming dress, the rough and tumble of being pulled into the sea by a horse, then opening the door to see nothing but the ocean in front of you. This is a play on conventional baptism for Viola. She fully immerses herself in the water, supported by Henriette, and feels a rebirth. The heaviness in the uncoiling of her hair and letting it float free signifies a freeing from the constraints of Victorian fashion, as is the unlacing of the corsets. As they trundle back up to the sand after their swim, Viola wishes they could stay in this space in the dark for the intimacy with Henriette, and the knowledge of the freedom she will feel as she opens the door and sees nothing but ocean. When the women share Viola’s room the writing is so tender. Viola worries what the servants might think, but Henriette frees her thinking again. Love between women does not exist, she tells her, there are laws and conventions regarding love between a man and a woman, and even the love between men. What they are to each other is beyond the thoughts of most people, the servants will see two friends staying together and nothing more. Pavan and Jonah, don’t meet in the main haveli but in an ancient old temple in its grounds, a space no longer used for its purpose and outside the family structure inside the house. They meet as two people of different cultures and beliefs, but find a connection so powerful that each would put their lives on the line for the other. Jonah wonders whether he could live a different life to the one laid out for him back in England. He’s seen other English men here who have married Indian women and had children. They’re neither totally respectable, but are not shunned either. This is a novel of people, particularly women, learning to live in the spaces between; the places that promise more freedom.

This was an original, emotional and beautifully written novel that weaves a powerful story from a combination of painstaking historical research and imagination. Each character is fully fleshed out and has a rich inner life. Where real events such as the 1857 Siege of Delhi are used in the novel, they are deeply powerful and the author treats them with respect. The elements of spiritualism and spirit photography are well researched and based on a real fascination for the paranormal in Victorian society. Cohen acknowledges that this is a novel about faith: religious faith, faith in the paranormal and that the ties to those we love don’t end in death; faith in romantic love and the promises we make to each other; even the faith she has in herself. In the acknowledgements to this novel Julie Cohen says ‘I wrote the first draft of this book when I thought my writing career was over’. Judging by this book, it’s far from over. However, by allowing herself to think of that possibility, she gave herself the space to write something truly extraordinary.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Paper Bracelet by Rachael English. #RandomThingsTours #blogtours #ThePaperBracelet #Headline

Rachael English tells a very powerful story about a shameful part of Ireland’s history; the Catholic Church’s homes for ‘wayward girls’. We meet a young girl who has an affair with a married man from her village and becomes pregnant. Her devout parents send for the parish priest and follow his advice to send her to Carrigbrack, a home run by nuns for unmarried mothers. This was one of the now infamous Magdalene Laundries or Asylums that housed upwards of thirty thousand women from the late 18th to the late 20th centuries. The scandal around these institutions broke in the late 1990s when a mass grave was found at one home containing approximately 155 bodies. Since then a formal apology has been given by the Irish government to the women who survived and a compensation scheme set up to acknowledge the damage done by allowing the practice to continue unchallenged for so long. The stories of some of these women have made it into incredibly powerful films such as Philomena where Judi Dench plays a woman trying to find the son taken from her and given to an American family. However, what Rachael English has done incredibly well is create multiple characters showing varied experiences within this history, but also how these institutions affected the women’s families for generations.

There are two timelines across the novel: a present day setting where a retired nurse has a hidden box of paper bracelets, but also flashbacks to the mid-20th Century where we follow the young girl sent into Carrigbrack. In the present day, Kate is recently widowed and when attempting to tidy her husband’s things from the wardrobe comes across a box of tiny paper bracelets. Her niece Beth is staying with her and for the first time Kate tells another member of her family about the origin of all these bracelets. She explains being a nurse in an institution called Carrigbrack, and how saving the baby’s identity bracelets was her small way of preserving the only proof they existed. With them is a tiny notebook where she has recorded any small detail she can remember of their birth mother, date and given name. Beth becomes our equivalent in the book, the modern reader placing 21st Century values onto the past. She is very shocked that her aunt would have anything to do with a practice that now seems barbaric.

Kate describes a very different Ireland, where obedience to the church was paramount and people were more deferential and trusting of those in authority. Then, in a small community, it would be perfectly normal to ask the parish priest to intervene in family matters. More often than not it would have been unthinkable not to take his advice. Beth can’t imagine a country being so judgemental on it’s young women. For some of the youngest girls sex would have been non-consensual and their pregnancy a product of rape or abuse. Yet they were still treated as ‘fallen women’ and punished with heavy work, often right up to their due date. Many girls were kept for up to six months after giving birth to pay the home back for the care they’d received. Then, even if they’d formed a bond, their baby would be adopted, often illegally, and with no warning. Meanwhile, their rapist could still be a pillar of the community back home, maybe enjoying their legitimate family and still going to church with the very same parish priest who placed his victim in these institutions.

In order to portray a breadth of experience, the author has created many, very memorable, characters. My heart belongs to Winnie. Freckled, funny and incredibly mischievous with beautiful curly black hair, she is Patricia’s first real friend at Carrigbrack. Together, when they’re allowed to, they can share experiences and really laugh like the young girls they are. Even having her hair hacked off for insubordination doesn’t dull her spirit, but it tragically means that her cries that she’s in labour go ignored by the nuns while she’s working in the laundry. The consequences are heartbreaking and genuinely made me cry. I found myself desperately hoping that despite being broken with grief, Winnie would find her spirit again and we’d meet her in the later parts of the book. I did struggle a little bit with people’s names on occasion as we went back and forth. The women’s names were changed by the nuns so might have reverted to their own name. Nuns change their names when they join an order. The babies were named by their mother, often renamed by the nuns and again by their adoptive parents. I did get a sense of the bureaucratic nightmare these women faced to find their children again and why many survivor’s of the institutions might struggle with their identity. I found myself being drawn into solving this mystery of which characters belonged to each other. I was also more than a little intrigued by Katie herself. What had led her to work in such a place? Why did she feel so strongly about keeping the bracelets? Beth’s mother is very reticent to talk about the years Katie spent there. Does she simply still subscribe to the old ways and believe that the scandal was best left, swept under the carpet? I couldn’t stop thinking there was more to this frosty relationship.

The children who are found also have very varied experiences and are in different places in life, yet all have felt this yearning to find their roots. Some have been blessed in their adoptive families and are well supported in their search. Others have always felt rudderless and a little bit lost in life; without that sense of being grounded. I was interested in the story of Brandon whose wife Robyn has been urging him to follow up on Katie’s post. What he finally finds explains his lifelong sense of someone or something being missing from his life. He is very conflicted about his birth family, because it comes with what he sees as complications. Ailish is also memorable as she illustrates one possible result of a lifelong lack of self-confidence, borne from the knowledge she was an ‘unwanted’ baby. There is room to heal when these characters find out the truth: they were very much wanted, but stolen; their origins were complicated; or their mothers were forced into accepting they couldn’t care for a child. The reunion is only a beginning. I loved that these characters didn’t just find their birth family. These survivors start to form a network, another type of family, that can only be borne out of shared experience. Now a set of roots intertwined and grown strong from those terrible events that happened to them as young women or babies.