We bloggers like lists. Every year we list our favourites, then we list the books we most anticipate for the following year and to an extent that can dictate what we read. When we leave ourselves some gaps in the TBR to have a breathing space, browse and pick up what we fancy we can find unexpected gems. That’s what happened with Flamingo, the latest novel from Rachel Elliot and it really is a gem. I don’t know if I can find the right words to express how much I loved this book and why. I knew, just a few pages in, that it was going to be a joy to read. In split time frames, narrated mainly by Eve and Daniel we hear the story of two families who once lived next door to each other. Eve, and her six year old son Daniel, move in next door to Leslie and Sherry who have two daughters Rae and Pauline, and some ornamental flamingoes on their front lawn. Eve isn’t used to making friends because she and Daniel move around a lot, but for some reason Eve feels compelled to make an effort. She goes to a specialist off-licence to find just the right bottle of sherry as a witty present to take to her new neighbour. Sherry is delighted and immediately welcomes the wandering pair into her home. That summer is the happiest Eve and Daniel have ever had, as they are enveloped by this wild, eccentric and loud family – Eve uses the word rambunctious to describe them. Then Eve and Daniel leave and all the colours seem to bleach out of the world. We then meet Daniel as an adult, wandering and broken. Deeply affected by some kind words and affection from a woman in a public library, he decides to return to where he was happiest. He stands at Sherry’s door and it feels like coming home, but where is Eve and what is the real story underneath the fragments Daniel knows.
It’s disconcerting to read a character’s narration, and feel as though the author has opened up your head and borrowed your thoughts. That’s how I felt when reading Eve’s sections of the novel. I have a jumble of thoughts and ideas all at once, and I’ve learned that I need periods of quiet to counteract the amount of stimulation I have. If I go to London for the day and see a show, its exhausting and it can take a couple of days to quiet the jumble of sights, sounds, and inspiration. In fact it was using journal writing to process these thoughts that inspired me to use writing therapy in my practice as a counsellor. For years I thought everyone had my ‘busy brain’. When Eve visits the off—licence and meets the owner, Franklin, they have a shot of rum togther and she’s intoxicated by his shop, the coloured glass, the smells, the guitar playing and the wall of paintings in a back room. Eve notices all these things in seconds and Franklin asks if she likes the place.
“She tells him she likes it. It’s sort of hypnotic, like being in a chemists and a bar and a gallery all at once, and also sort of like being in church somehow, not that she ever goes to church, not that she’s religious, not that she ever goes to church, but a tiny old church in France maybe, not that she’s ever been to France”.
I loved the way the author expresses the speed of Eve’s thoughts and speech, where they come out too quickly for punctuation and you know she would have to take a deep breath at the end. I recognised it straight away, because it was me when I get enthusiastic and excited about something. In fact I sounded similar when telling my partner how much I loved the book. I know when I’m doing it, because it usually makes people smile. We learn so much about who Eve is from that one quote. I loved her enthusiasm, her eye for colour and her ability to make things. Sherry marvels when she mends Rae’s cords, by sewing a patch of Wonder Woman underneath the tear. Rae’s reaction is pure joy and Sherry is astounded that Eve has thought of such a thing, but to Eve it’s normal. She simply knew the cords needed mending and she had remembered that Rae loved Wonder Woman. It’s these little bursts of creativity and thoughtfulness that make her so endearing as a character. It probably stood out to me because I have just embroidered denim jackets for my stepdaughter’s birthdays – one of Frida Kahlo and one of Alice in Wonderland. What’s so special to Rae is that Eve has seen her, listened, and created something she would love.
These parts of the novel, where the characters connect, are its strength and it was no surprise to find out the author is also a psychotherapist. Rae is an introvert and Eve has seen and understood. She knows from Rae’s shining face that she loves the cords but understands the that Rae doesn’t want to be effusive about it, because it just isn’t her.
‘It’s her way to play things down; she is naturally reserved, understated or so it seems. Her mother, who expresses every emotion with intense theatricality, who takes up all the space, calls her eldest daughter the quiet one, as if this quietness is a kind of fragility – not a powerful act of disobedience and unruliness’.
Sometimes, in a house of very loud voices, whispering is the only way to be heard. Rae’s head is crammed with thoughts and it takes an awful lot of effort to keep them in sometimes and Eve has seen a kindred spirit in her.
Daniel is also a fascinating and the dynamic between him and his mum, suggests there’s more to their back story than meets the eye. He has an anxiety around people that concerns Eve and she is protective. Before they go to Sherry’s house for the first time, she prepares him for the social interaction. She wants to prepare him, but she also wants to be careful and avoid her own anxiety rubbing off on him. She explains that this is a thing people do, take a gift to their new neighbours and introduce themselves properly. At Sherry’s door she stands back with a reassuring hand on Daniel’s shoulder and talks about the ornamental flamingoes on the lawn. She tells him their collective noun is a flamboyance of flamingoes, a little game they play together. Eve is so surprised when Sherry opens the door and her boy walks straight in – ‘shy little Daniel stepping towards a stranger.’ Eve doesn’t seem to realise that Daniel is struggling with the impermanence of their lives; they have moved every year since Daniel was born. This was another thing I could identify with since we moved six times before I was in secondary school. I know how difficult it was to walk into a new classroom and see thirty pairs of eyes looking at you. Eve has a map on the kitchen wall and from time to time would simply close her eyes and pop a pin in it to choose their next destination. When she gives Daniel the chance to choose, it’s too much and his imagination runs haywire: what if there are monsters where he chooses? What if its horrible? What happens to their home? Will strangers take their things?
‘Trouble was she hadn’t left it up to chance. She had left it up to a six year old boy, who already hated that map on the wall. In some homes a map would evoke an atmosphere of learning, open-mindedness; lets be aware of the world, there are more places than home. But for Daniel it triggered fear and a sense of transience; always on the go, never know when’.
There are so many touching moments in the book I can’t possibly list them all, but the budding relationship between the boy Daniel and Sherry’s husband Leslie is just so moving. The confidence he gets from time spent with Leslie (who is not a girl) playing cards and learning to swim is obvious. When Leslie leaves the broken fence down so Daniel can appear from his garden and scare them at the window it feels different from other places they’ve been. Daniel blooms with this unconventional extended family and describes it to his Aunty as like having two homes. I was dreading the map coming out again. We meet adult Daniel at a crossroads in life physically and emotionally. As their tenancy ends on their flat, Daniel’s girlfriend Erica decides this is a good time to reassess their relationship and leaves. Instead of picking himself up, Daniel seems unable to cope with this double loss and ends up walking the streets with a rucksack and only a ceramic sheep for company. When he turns up at Sherry’s door she is blown away by the man he’s become, like a ‘matryoshka’ where she can see the boy inside the man and the woman inside the boy. I loved this description because it beautifully describes the ever changing selves inside us, but also the effect of previous generations and incarnations of who we are. Daniel is carrying so much more than his rucksack, but also the baggage of being left behind by the women in his life, the loss of this family where he felt at home and the original secret, the one that always compelled Eve to move them on, from place to place. Can this family, once again, give Daniel the space to heal and process a lifetime of hurt?
This is a slow burn novel, told in fragments like half forgotten memories and with such beauty it could be a poem. The writer conveys perfectly how certain people can hold space for and heal wounds in each other. Even if they’re only with us for a short time. In light of recent events it’s important to remember that to live fully we must connect with each other. The book shows humans in their best light and at their most powerful, when showing love and accepting others for who they are. When Daniel is a child he is taught that flamingoes are not actually born pink, but attain their colour through their diet. Their beauty comes from what’s put into them and humans are the same – we are the sum of what we are fed from parents and caregivers right through to a kind woman in a library acknowledging Daniel’s suffering. Through Daniel, and Rae to an extent, there’s an acknowledgment of how painful this life can be, but that healing and change is possible. I was enchanted by this story and it will keep a special place in my heart.
In the garden, there were three flamingos. Not real flamingos, but real emblems, real gateways to a time when life was impossibly good. They were mascots, symbols of hope. Something for a boy to confide in.
Meet The Author
Rachel Elliott is the author of WHISPERS THROUGH A MEGAPHONE (2015, Pushkin Press, longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016) and DO NOT FEED THE BEAR (2019, Tinder Press). Her third novel, FLAMINGO, was published on 3 Feb 2022 by Tinder Press and is out now in hardback, ebook & audiobook. She is also a psychotherapist.
Out now from Tinder Press