This was an unexpectedly quirky and refreshing take on the obsessional friendship trope, a theme I’ve loved ever since watching Single White Female back in the 1990’s. This is the first of the author’s novels to be translated into English from the original Japanese. I was surprised by that, because there was something about the writing style and the main character that I thought would appeal to the British reader. I thought earlier novels might have also appealed to British readers. The daily eccentricities of the the Woman in the Purple Skirt the man m were charming and intriguing, so it was that and my curiosity about the motives of the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan that drew me in to the story. There is also an interesting, melancholic sense of humour that struck me as something British reader would enjoy.
There are some characteristics that the two women share, such as living standards and finances. It’s possible that both are lonely and are living from hand to mouth, but what drives the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan to get up and watch her every move? What does she want? Eventually, she lures the Woman in the Purple Skirt to a job with the cleaning agency where she works as a hotel housekeeper. This brings the women into proximity, but instead of a friendship emerging, the Woman in a Purple Skirt falls into an affair with the boss. This is the main difference between the women; the Woman in a Yellow Cardigan only watches, while the Woman in a Purple Skirt actually lives. I felt this distinction very strongly and wondered whether there would be resentment or even anger towards the Woman in a Purple Skirt. This is where the book really ventures into thriller territory as the women meet and we see the dynamics of female relationships, the obsessiveness and that human need to be seen, recognised and even desired. This woman simply wants to be noticed and considered by someone else. Why do people recognise the Woman in the Purple Skirt? What does she have that makes people sit up and take notice?
I found myself thinking about the word ‘sonder’ – one I’m using for my own writing at the moment. It’s a German word to describe the realisation that every random passer by has a life as rich and varied as our own. This seems to be what the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan wants to know, the rich complexity of the Woman in the Purple Skirt’s life. The woman always wears a purple skirt, it is possibly this and her set daily routine that makes people notice her. As she leaves her apartment every day she is followed and insulted by neighbourhood children, in fact she’s great entertainment for the neighbours who seem equally fascinated by her set routine. Every day she walks to the bakery and buys a single cream cake, takes it to the same park bench and eats it. No one knows who her family are or where she’s from. Her jobs are temporary, she lives alone and doesn’t even attempt to relate to others. She is an enigma, and the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan watches her every move, until she knows her daily routine uby heart. Even her appearance is intriguing. From a distance she could pass for a schoolgirl, but up close she has liver spots that belie her age. Her hair is dry, she lives in a small, shabby apartment and is short on money. She looks like one thing, but could very well be another. She’s different, but seems to have carved a life out in the world, something that the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan seems to find so difficult.
I thought it was wonderful to have two such complex and multi-dimensional female characters, especially where the relationship between them is the focus. There was a peculiar creeping unease built into the narrative. Japan seems to exude ‘otherness’ like nowhere else, a theme explored in the film Lost in Translation. I lived next to a Japanese Garden for seven years, where English plants and trees were pruned into the shapes of Japanese topiary. Stepping into it from my cottage garden made felt like entering a surreal and alien landscape. That’s a little bit what this book felt like. It was original and refreshing, perfect for if you’re in a reading slump, and a fascinating take on the thriller genre.
Mark Edwards has become one of my favourite authors over the last few years. His books are fascinating, addictive thrillers where an ordinary domestic situation is subverted or even blown wide open. There’s maybe a new person brought into the situation who upsets the dynamic or a massive life change that makes a character question their life. This was a slightly different premise, but still based around a modern family, with more than a nod to another of my favourite authors – Stephen King. The title reminded me of the wooded area where the kids would meet in King’s novel It, there are allusions to burying a live cat that brought to mind Pet Semetary, the backwater town has the feel of Salem’s Lot and the passing drunk who helps Tom at the end has the feel of the janitor at the Overlook Hotel. As soon as Tom arrived at the cabins it reminded me of the secluded cabin in Bag of Bones. This gave me the sense we might be getting a supernatural element to this thriller and there’s definitely a pagan or Wiccan aspect to the tale.
With his marriage over and his career in freefall, journalist Tom decides to reconnect with his fourteen-year-old daughter, Frankie. Desperate to spend precious time together now that they live an ocean apart, he brings her to Hollow Falls, a cabin resort deep in the woods of Maine.
From the outset there’s something a little eerie about the place—strange whispers in the trees, windchimes echoing through the forest—but when Tom meets true-crime podcasters David and Connie, he receives a chilling warning. Hollow Falls has a gruesome history: twenty years ago this week, a double slaying shut down the resort. The crime was never solved, and now the woods are overrun with murder-obsessed tourists looking to mark the grim anniversary.
It’s clear that there’s something deeply disturbing going on at Hollow Falls. And as Tom’s dream trip turns into a nightmare, he and Frankie are faced with a choice: uncover the truth, or get out while they still can. There were times in the book when I was screaming at Tom to just pack the car up and leave without looking back! The killing from twenty years ago is a heavy influence on the story. Two teachers on a field trip with their students, sneak away at night to a clearing in the forest and start an illicit affair. Both are married and it is a double shock to their spouses to find out they’ve been cheating and murdered. The bodies are posed in a symbolic way with Wiccan symbols painted in their blood. The suspect is a local teenager with an interest in death metal and all things pagan. He disappeared at the same time as the murders, and Tom’s daughter Frankie is spooked by tales of him still living wild in the woods to this day. She forms a friendship with Ryan, son of the true crime enthusiasts David and Connie. They take a walk into the local town, Penance, which is a real backwater with locals who are openly hostile to those at the holiday village. The teenagers run into some other kids, but they’re not friendly. The way the author describes brother and sister duo Buddy and Darlene, standing together, arms by their sides and completely motionless – is creepy and reminiscent of the twin girls from The Shining. Ryan takes pictures and lampoons the locals on Instagram using hashtags they’re going to find, putting himself and Frankie in danger.
The author really ramps up the tension to great effect. Little creepy incidents like a dead rabbit at the cabin door, Tom thinking he’s seen a horned goat man, as well as Connie’s hints about a big surprise for her true crime followers on barbecue night, keep camp residents on edge. Then more serious incidents start to occur – Frankie and Ryan are pelted with rocks, an unlucky guest with a heart condition sees what she thinks is Satan. The stakes are getting higher, building towards the Saturday event. Tom makes friends with local bookshop owner Nikki, there’s an instant charge between them, but can he trust her? As he starts to look into the murders and myths surrounding the Hollows, using his investigative skills, he realises that Nikki was about the same age as suspected murderer Everett. Everybody seems to know each other in such a small town so did she know him? Suspicions reach boiling point, and when Frankie and Ryan go missing in the midst of the party preparations Tom has no idea who to trust and how to find his daughter.
Mark Edwards never lets me down. His thrillers are always well thought out, psychologically unsettling and paced beautifully. I didn’t work out the whole mystery, and the eventual reveal developed in an unexpected and rather grisly way. There was something slightly comical, as well as horrifying, about people wandering the woods in animal masks – particularly when the horned goat happens upon a very religious woman with a very weak heart. I must admit to a rather dark sense of humour because that made me laugh. I enjoyed the friction between locals and holiday makers, because it’s true of many beautiful places. The locals need tourists, but it’s an uneasy partnership. The pagan backstory to the forest being sacred ground, that should remain wild, linked in to this and felt very apt in a time when humans have ruined their habitat. I think the prurience of true crime fans was also timely with many of my friends glued to crime documentaries on Netflix. I’m also a Stephen King fan so I enjoyed the nods to his creations and the whole ‘townie versus country locals’ vibe that permeates a lot of his work. I devoured this so quickly that I’m already thinking about thr next book from this ‘must buy’ author.
Meet The Author
Mark Edwards writes psychological thrillers in which scary things happen to ordinary people.
He loves hearing from readers and always responds. Mark can be contacted in the following ways: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @mredwards Facebook/Instagram: @markedwardsauthor
Mark has sold over 3.5 million books since his first solo novel, The Magpies, was published in 2013 and has topped the bestseller lists numerous times. His other novels include Follow You Home, Here To Stay and The House Guest. He has also published six books co-authored with Louise Voss. His latest book is The Hollows, published in July 2021.
Mark lives in the West Midlands, England, with his wife, their three children and two cats.
I truly enjoyed Deborah Moggach’s last novel The Carer thanks to it’s depiction of family dynamics. She showed the problems common to ‘the middle’ where both children and parents need us in equal measure, but mostly that difficult decision about ‘caring’ for an elderly relative and the compromises we have to make. This novel concentrates more on growing older in the 21st Century with all it’s difficulties and choices to face. More people over 50 are facing huge life changes and are emerging from broken relationships into a world that’s moved on several decades. They face the daunting prospect of internet dating, cat-fishing, swiping right and learning to navigate through it all. I think we all imagine there’s an age where we grow up and become adults. We expect wisdom to set in, the risks and mistakes to be less and for us to be settled in who and where we are. Of course I’ve reached middle age and don’t feel any where near being a real adult. I’ve realised I’m still the same heart on sleeve, leap of faith, in love with love, risk taker that I’ve always been. There’s growth from experience, but my essential character has not changed. However, I identified with Pru, who is weathering this massive life change, then sees a black dress in a charity shop and wonders what if I was someone different for a while?
Pru’s husband has walked out and has set up home in their little holiday cottage by the sea. Her only consolation is her friend Azra, always a little too wild and boho for Pru’s husband’s taste, but a great solace as she contemplates living the rest of her life without her other spoon. To be honest with herself, it’s not really him that she misses. She misses their life together – the past memories of playing on the beach with the children, always having someone next to her in bed, and those in-jokes that they would only get together. Now the bed feels huge and Pru feels numb and bewildered. In something of a daze, she has to attend the funeral of an old friend, but at the church she notices that something’s not quite right. There are people she expected to see, who aren’t here. As she listens to the hymns and the eulogy she wonders why it doesn’t sound like the friend she knew. Then the penny drops – she’s at the wrong funeral. Yet somehow she gets swept along with it and finds she has a good time, conversation, a few drinks and banter with some of the other guests. So when she sees the black dress hanging there, she allows herself to wonder why not? Maybe she will meet a nice widower to bring some excitement into her life. With this in mind she starts to buy the paper and circle the obituaries.
It is Azra who points out that what Pru is experiencing is grief. The loss of a decades long marriage is enormous and it’s very clear she’s not thinking straight. Whenever she talks to her husband she doesn’t get a clear idea about why he wanted to leave. This is what she feels she needs to know and understand, before she can move forward. Yet, as she finds out, sometimes the truth is worse than not knowing. Now she can add anger to the list of emotions cycling through her head. In the midst of this she attends her first chosen funeral. The deceased is a woman of her own age and used to be a nurse, so her story will be that they lost touch after doing their nursing training together all those years ago. The widower seems a lovely man, devastated by his wife’s death and eager to hear stories about nursing college. Pru is welcomed back to the family home and meets the couple’s grown up children. She thinks there might be something there with this man, given a little time and the right encouragement. That’s if she had a reason to go back to the house of course? As she leaves her wrap behind as well as her number, in case he ever wants to talk some more.
Pru’s audacity really grabbed me. Yes, what she’s doing is crazy and there’s a good chance one of her escapades will go wrong. In that sense it’s a bit like watching a car crash, you can’t bear to look but you can’t look away either. Of course at first she’s looking for comfort, someone who understands the loss she has experienced maybe, and there’s an element of acting out on the anger she feels about her husband’s lies and betrayal. However, the sheer nerve it would take to walk into a stranger’s funeral and play another version of yourself for the day shows she has some sass and attitude. Whenever it goes wrong, and it does, she doesn’t stop taking those leaps of faith just to move forward. Yes, there are less messy and dangerous ways of grieving a lost relationship, but this is Pru’s way. It doesn’t matter where the next step takes her, as long as it’s away from those painful feelings and fear of loneliness. It’s in these early stages that a lot of the comedy lies too, just in the situations she places herself. There’s a kind of bravery in her actions, but a hint of madness too and I wasn’t sure which way Moggach would take her story. As it turns out, a much darker direction than I expected, but so very delicious too.
As Pru takes more risks and trusts the wrong people, her solutions take a darker turn. There were times when I wanted her to keep still for a moment and think, or even better, to feel the conflicting emotions she’s trying to stuff deep down inside. There’s a moment, where one of her beaus takes her on a helicopter ride down to an uninhabited island formed from sandbanks. As she steps onto this pristine sand, where no one else has been, there’s a brief spell of peace. Once the rotors stopped turning and she stops for a moment, I felt a sense of relief that everything was quiet. She’s in a space between places, somewhere she’s never been and that holds no memories. This moment feels like a metaphor for how Pru’s journey could have been, if she’d taken more time and space to think and explore how she really wanted the rest of her life to look. In the spiral of activity she’s missed things; if she’d struck up a friendship with that first widower, rather than a relationship, they might have been a comfort to each other, she brushes aside overtures of friendship from Pam across the road who’s always seemed a bit boring, but might have proved to be a great friend, and she might have come to terms with what happened. Now though, she’s in a spiral downwards.
It’s hard to categorise this novel, because although it feels like a light, easy read, it’s incredibly complex. I would struggle to place it in a genre, because it’s drama, tragedy, comedy, and thriller. Despite covering themes of infidelity, coercive control, death and grief it’s also warm and witty. The author does an excellent job of lampooning middle class morés, shown when Pru takes a rough diamond of a boyfriend to a party with friends. Moggach then pulls off an incredible reveal, worthy of any thriller and I really hadn’t seen coming. So much so that I had to go back and look for how I’d missed it. It was brilliantly well done. Then there’s Pru herself, a central character you can’t help but fall in love with. She’s far from perfect, in fact at times she’s conniving, manipulative and full of revenge, but she’s also warm, caring, funny and at her best she’s full of zest for life. Yet underneath it all, she’s lonely and very vulnerable. There are darker moments towards the end that made me worry for Pru, and they show how easy it is to be preyed upon by others when we’re this vulnerable. I loved being able to read about a woman of a certain age still having an exciting life, when often women over 50 are dismissed as uninteresting. Pru enjoys socialising, dressing up and having sex too. Despite her faults, I was hanging on till the last page hoping that Pru battled through – even if her methods were … unexpected. This wonderful book cements the author’s reputation with me, as a writer whose next book I would buy without hesitation.
Meet The Author
Deborah Moggach, OBE, is a British novelist and an award-winning screenwriter. She has written twenty novels, including Tulip Fever,These Foolish Things (which became the bestselling novel and film TheBest Exotic Marigold Hotel), and The Carer. She lives in London.
Helene Flood has written a fascinating thriller about a therapist, set in Oslo. It’s complexity of character and their motivations probably comes from the fact that the author is a psychologist. Straightaway, I was invested and really excited me to get inside the character’s minds. Sara. and her husband Sigurd live in his family home, a large three storey house they’re currently renovating. Next door is a small addition to the property, housing Sarah’s office and therapy room. On this Friday, Sara is seeing three clients and then settling in for a quiet weekend while Sigurd is on a boy’s weekend away with his best friendS. At lunchtime he leaves Sara a message to say they’ve arrived safely at his family’s cabin and his friend is gathering firewood. She expects to speak to him that evening, so is shocked when one of his friends calls to ask where Sigurd is, as he hasn’t arrived yet. In the days following Sigurd’s disappearance Sara must cope with a very thorough detective searching her house and dissecting her relationship, an intruder breaking into the house, breaking the news to her distracted and narcissistic father, and constantly wondering where Sigurd has gone. On top of everything, she has clients to see.
The story is told in two narratives from Sara’s point of view. In one, we’re in the present day, experiencing the investigation and Sara’s interactions with family and friends in the wake of Sigurd’s disappearance. In the second we meet a very different Sara, as she first meets Sigurd, spends time with friends and makes the decision to move to Oslo. This Sara seems lighter mentally, she’s obviously younger but not by much, so what has changed? The past Sara seems to be enjoying life, despite a stressful clinical post with drug users. Sigurd is also completing his training in architecture and is incredibly busy. The distance between them is something she hadn’t anticipated, she knew they would both be busy, but thought the strength of their feelings would keep them on track. A brief interlude away at a festival with friends sees Sara’s mood lift completely. She starts to relax and enjoy herself. However, there will be secrets kept about this weekend that have huge implications for her future.
Present day Sara seems very controlled and reserved. The author creates this interesting gap between Sara’s interior world and the way she presents herself to the world outside. She is always thinking, analysing and wondering, but her conversation is minimal and gives very little away about how she feels. There’s something called cognitive dissonance going on here, a huge gap between the Sara she presents to others and how she truly feels. There are three core values a therapist should have when seeing clients: authenticity, non-judgement and prizing the client. Sara seems strangely detached from her emotions – still seeing clients even after Sigurd’s disappearance as if nothing’s happened. While this is great for continuity, it isn’t very authentic and I felt that instead of practicing authentically she is wearing her therapist’s role like a mask. Even before she knows about her husband, Sara’s thinking is very ordered. She has the day split into therapy hours, admin time, lunch until she can throw on some pyjamas and chill out. It feels like she’s listing tasks just to get through the day, mentally ticking it off seems like a habit borne out of anxiety or trying to keep motivated when depressed. I wouldn’t say she’s enjoying life much. Their home seems the same, with plans for a beautifully finished house, that are currently a list of tasks they can’t afford. In trying to achieve something ambitious and beautiful, they’ve made their current lives very uncomfortable and messy. The state of the house seems to get Sara down and Sigurd wants her to take on more clients so they have more money to get on with the plans. However, I don’t think Sara is in the mental state to cope with more therapy hours.
I loved the author’s creation of Sara’s narcissistic father, a professor and philosopher with controversial right wing views about crime, family and vigilantism. Sara describes talking to her father, almost like an audience with royalty. It’s so rare to have all his attention on you, it’s difficult just to be his daughter. He seems to give off the sense they should be grateful for his unwavering attention and if either daughter struggles to make use of the time, conversation soon turns to him, his work or one of the many students who seem to loiter round the house like acolytes. In fact Sara is so bewildered by his attention on this occasion she doesn’t tell him her devastating news, but instead debates something totally unrelated with him then goes home again. It’s no surprise that she keeps her vulnerabilities and worries to herself – there’s never been anyone interested in hearing them. Even her sister Annika, although she looks after Sara, drops into her role as lawyer as well as sister. This is partly to remind Sara how she’s being viewed by the police, to remind the police not to take liberties, but also to give herself a professional role to hide behind. It is only when one of Sara’s friends arrives and acts naturally by hugging her, that she even feels like crying.
As Sara starts to undertake her own investigation, secrets start to emerge about the couple’s life together. There has been some distance between them for a while. Her relationship with his family is not a warm one, with Sigurd’s mother resentful that they live in her childhood home – left to Sigurd by his grandfather. They don’t even attempt to look after h er and she foresees a long wrangle over Sigurd’s will. There were arguments at Sigurd’s work with differences in architectural perspectives, and who is the mystery blonde that sometimes wait for Sigurd after work? If his work on the Atkins house was finished long ago, why is it still in his diary and where is he really spending his time. The author keeps us brilliantly on edge with red herrings and reveals galore. We see the police through Sara’s eyes, which might explain why they seem curiously non-committal about everything. We never truly know how they feel about Sara or where the investigation is going. Obviously she is a possible suspect. However, there are points in the investigation, when Sara is sure there is an intruder at the house, where they seem indifferent to her worries and her safety. I was never quite sure whether Sara was the ultimate unreliable narrator and would turn out to be implicated in her husband’s disappearance. She seemed detached from the reality of it, even within the context that their relationship has deteriorated over time. The ending was a surprise and the double reveal was beautifully done, and very satisfying. I stayed up late to finish the last few chapters, because I was so hooked on the story. This was a psychological thriller I would definitely recommend.
Meet The Author
Helene Flood is a psychologist who obtained her doctoral degree on violence, revictimization and trauma-related shame and guilt in 2016. She now works as a psychologist and researcher at the National Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress. She lives in Oslo with her husband and two children. The Therapist is her first adult novel. It has been sold in 27 counties and film rights have been bought by Anonymous Content. Her second novel, The Lover, will be published in English in 2022.
Have you ever wished that you had a chance to do something all over again? To iron out the mistakes or maybe create a different outcome. To maybe get a second chance at life, right from the start; a life with a blank slate again. What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
Life After Life is one of my favourite novels of all time, alongside its sequel A God in Ruins. I loved her Jackson Brodie novels and Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but this novel is something extra special. I’d never read anything like it outside of sci-fi novels.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.
Atkinson does something profoundly special with this novel. It could have been a perfectly acceptable novel if it simply explored this baby girl’s lives from a personal and family perspective. However, Atkinson weaves Ursula’s personal story in with the state of flux in the early Twentieth Century. She takes in the demise of such upper middle class family’s like the Todd’s, from changes to social mobility, women’s roles becoming more prominent, and the loss of male members of the family due to WW1 and WW2. She explores the descent into WW2 and women’s roles in places like the war office and the secret services. In the multiple lives Ursula lives she can explore whether or not war could have been avoided, and what role she could have played in that mission. There’s so much going on that I can understand some reviewers finding it complicated to follow. The trick is to simply go with it. Eventually Ursula has longer lives where these issues can be explored in depth.
I fell in love with the Todd family and their genteel English way of life that can be summed up in a single phrase; ‘one does as one must, and then has tea’. All the female characters, including Sylvie and Pamela, are well fleshed out and it’s interesting to see what different paths their own lives took because of Ursula. I also had an incredible soft spot for Teddy – and loved that he got his own story in her follow up novel A God In Ruins. However, it is Ursula who holds our attention most and the endlessly inventive ways she dies in childbirth, from Spanish Flu, from drowning or by murder. She always has very strong perceptions, and experiences strong episodes of déja vu – although she doesn’t know she’s been here before, it seems she has gained some gifts from her other lives. There must be some residual wisdom from times when she’s been a mother or not, a wife or a mistress, someone who leads a quiet life in the country or goes to Germany and changes the course of history.
Atkinson’s sense of place is incredible. There are the lazy summers at the Todd family home, lounging in the garden or the kids exploring freely, climbing trees in the idyllic countryside. Her scenes in London are incredibly evocative, especially her descriptions based in historical fact. In one section their maid goes to a huge gathering in the capital to celebrate the end of WW1 and brings Spanish Flu back to the house. Her description of the London Blitz brings home how devastating and terrifying it must have been. We have a unique perspective as readers, we have an overview of every life Ursula lives, while she only knows the one she’s living in. Of course there are some events that repeat in every life – her birthday in 1910 is replayed twelve times – but these are important moments, where even the most subtle difference can send Ursula hurtling towards a different path in life. The novel evoked several other novels for me. The scenes at home with family in the early Twentieth Century reminded me of the long, languid summer of L.P.Hartley’s The Go-Between. Scenes in London during WW2, and the concept of written lives versus the truth, reminded me of Atonement by Ian McEwan. I never became bored of going back to the beginning, but the other characters in Ursula’s life are so strong and well-written, it seems odd that once she dies, they no longer exist either. The author explores the dynamics of family, class, and how that changes so much at this point in history. There’s also grief – for other people, a way of life, a loss of innocence – and how that affects characters differently. I think this is an astonishing novel, beautifully written and managing to be both playful in structure but profoundly moving at the same time.
Next week for Throwback Thursday I will be looking at Kate Atkinson’s sequel to Life After Life. A God in Ruins overlaps with Ursula’s story in places, but is more focused on her little brother Teddy.
Her four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie became the BBC television series Case Histories, starring Jason Isaacs.Her 2013 novel Life After Life won the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Prize, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, and voted Book of the Year for the independent booksellers associations on both sides of the Atlantic. It also won the Costa Novel Award, as did her subsequent novel A God in Ruins (2015).
Today I get to share with you an extract from this brilliant sequel to Ellen Alpsten’s novel Tsarina.
When they took everything from her, they didn’t count on her fighting to get it back…
Born into the House of Romanov to the all-powerful Peter the Great and Catherine I, beautiful Tsarevna Elizabeth is the world’s loveliest Princess and the envy of the Russian empire. Insulated by luxury and as a woman free from the burden of statecraft, Elizabeth is seemingly born to pursue her passions.
However, a dark prophecy predicts her fate as inexorably twined with Russia. When her mother dies, Russia is torn, masks fall, and friends become foes. Elizabeth’s idyllic world is upended. By her twenties she is penniless and powerless, living under constant threat. As times change like quicksand, an all-consuming passion emboldens Elizabeth: she must decide whether to take up her role as Russia’s ruler, and what she’s willing to do for her country – and for love.
THE TSARINA’S DAUGHTER
In the Winter Palace, St Nicholas’ Day 6 december 1741
My little cousin Ivan is innocent – he is a baby, and as pure as only a one-year-old can be. But tonight, at my order, the infant Tsar will be declared guilty as charged. I fight the urge to pick him up and kiss him; it would only make things worse. Beyond his nursery door there is a low buzzing sound, like that of angry bees ready to swarm the Winter Palace. Soldiers’ boots scrape and shuffle. Spurs clink like stubby vodka glasses and bayonets are being fixed to muskets. These are the sounds of things to come. The thought spikes my heart with dread. There is no other choice. It is Ivan or me. Only one of us can rule Russia, the other one condemned to a living death. Reigning Russia is a right that has to be earned as much as inherited: he and my cousin, the Regent, doom the country to an eternity under the foreign yoke. Under their rule the realm will be lost; the invisible holy bond between Tsar and people irretrievably severed. I, Elizabeth, am the only surviving child of Peter the Great’s fifteen sons and daughters. Tonight, if I hesitate too long, I might become the last of the siblings to die. Curse the Romanovs! In vain I try to bar from my thoughts the prophecy that has blighted my life. Puddles form on the parquet floor as slush drips from my boots; their worn thigh-high leather is soaked from my dash across St Petersburg.
Despite my being an Imperial Princess – the Tsarevna Elizabeth Petrovna Romanova – no footman had hooked a bearskin across my lap to protect me against the icy wind and driving snow while I sat snug in a sled; I had no muff to raise to my face in that special graceful gesture of the St Petersburg ladies, the damy. My dash towards my date with destiny had been clandestine: snowfall veiled the flickering lights of the lanterns and shrouded the city. Mortal fear drove me on, hurry- ing over bridges, dodging patrolled barriers – the shlagbaumy – and furtively crossing the empty prospects, where my hasty passage left a momentary trace of warmth in the frosty air. This was a night of momentous decision-making that I would have to live with forever. An anointed and crowned Tsar may not be killed, even once he is deposed, as it sets a dangerous prece- dent. Yet he may not live either – at least not in the minds of the Russian people or according to the diplomatic dispatches sent all over Europe. What then is to become of the boy? I feel for Ivan’s limp little hand. I simply cannot resist – never could – nuzzling his chubby, rosy fingers, which are still too small to bear the Imperial seal. We call this game a butterfly’s kiss; it makes him giggle and squeal, and me dissolve with tenderness. I drink in his scent, the talcum powder blended for his sole use in Grasse – vanilla and bergamot, the Tsar’s perfume – carefully recording it to last me a lifetime. The men outside fall quiet. They are waiting for the decision that will both save and damn me. The thought sears my soul. In Ivan’s nursery, the lined French damask drapes are drawn. Thick, pot-bellied clouds hide the December new moon and stars, giving this hour a dense and dreadful darkness. During the day, the seagulls’ cries freeze on their beaks; the chill of night grates skin raw. Any light is as scarce and dear as everything else in St Petersburg. The candle-sellers’ shops, which smell of beeswax, flax and sulphur, do brisk business with both Yuletide and Epiphany approaching. On the opposite quay, the shutters on the flat façades of the city’s palaces and houses are closed, the windows behind them dark. They are swathed in the same brooding silence as the Winter Palace. I am in my father’s house, but this does not mean that I am safe. Far from it – it means quite the opposite.
The Winter Palace’s myriad corridors, hundreds of rooms and dozens of staircases can be as welcoming as a lover’s embrace or as danger- ous as a snake pit. It is Ivan or me: fate has mercilessly driven us towards this moment. The courtiers shun me: no one would bet a kopeck on my future. Will I be sent to a remote convent, even though I do not have an ounce of nun’s flesh about me, as the Spanish envoy, the Duke of Liria, so memorably recorded? I had once been forced to see such an unfortunate woman in her cell; as intended, the sight instilled a terror that would last me a lifetime. Her shorn head was covered in chilblains and her eyes shone with madness. A hunchbacked dwarf, whose tongue had been torn out, was her sole companion, both of them shuffling about in rotten straw like pigs in their sties. Or perhaps there is a sled waiting for me, destination Siberia? I know about this voyage of no return; I have heard the cries, seen the dread and smelled the fear of the banished culprits, be they simple peasants or even the Tsar’s best friend. By the first anniversary of their sentence, all had succumbed to the harsh conditions of the East. Maybe a dark cell in the Trubetzkoi Bastion, the place nobody ever leaves in one piece, will swallow me; or things will be simpler, and I am fated to end up face down in the Neva, drifting between the thick floes of ice, my body crushed and shredded by their sheer force. The soldiers’ impatience is palpable. Just one more breath! Ivan’s wet-nurse is asleep, slumped on her stool, resting amidst his toys: the scattered pieces of a Matryoshka doll, wooden boats, a mechan- ical silver bear that opens its jaws and raises its paws when wound up, and a globe inlaid with Indian ivory and Belgian émaillé. One of the nurse’s pale breasts is still bare from the last feed; she was chosen for her ample alabaster bosom in Moscow’s raucous German Quarter. Ivan is well cared for: Romanov men are of weaker stock than Romanov women, even if no one ever dares to say so. I cele- brated his first year as a time of wonder, offering my little cousin a cross studded with rubies and emeralds for his christening, a gift fit for a Tsar, and put myself in debt to raise an ebony colt in my stables as his Yuletide present.
Ivan’s breathing is growing heavier. The regiment outside his door weighs on his dreams. As I touch his sides, his warmth sends a jolt through my fingers, hitting a Gold in my heart. Oh, to hold him one more time and feel his delightful weight in my arms. I pull my hands back, folding them, though the time for prayers has passed. No pilgrimage can ever absolve me from this sin, even if I slide across the whole of Russia on my knees. Ivan’s lashes flutter, his chin wobbles, he smacks his pink and shiny lips. I cannot bear to see him cry, despite the saying of Russian serfs: ‘Another man’s tears are only water.’ The lightest load will be your greatest burden. The last prophecy is coming to pass. Spare me, I inwardly plead – but I know this is my path, and I will have to walk it to the end, over the pieces of my broken heart. Ivan slides back into slumber; long, dark lashes cast shadows on his round cheeks and his tiny fists open, showing pink, unlined palms. The sight stabs me. Not even the most adept fortune-teller could imagine what the future has in store for Ivan. It is a thought that I refrain from following to its conclusion. Beyond the door utter silence reigns. Is this the calm before the storm my father taught me to fear when we sailed the slate- coloured waters of the Bay of Finland? His fleet had been rolling at anchor in the far distance, masts rising like a marine forest. ‘This is forever Russia,’ he had proudly announced. ‘No Romanov must ever surrender what has been gained by spilling Russian blood.’ In order to strengthen Russia, Father had spared no one. My elder half-brother Alexey, his son and heir, had paid the ultimate price for doubting Russia’s path to progress. Steps approach. My time with Ivan, and life as we know it, is over. I wish this were not necessary. There is a knock on the nursery door, a token rasp of knuckles; so light, it belies its true purpose. It is time to act. Russia will tolerate no further excuses. The soldiers’ nerves are as taut as the springs in a bear trap. I have promised them the world: on a night like this, destinies are forged, fortunes made and lost.
‘Elizabeth Petrovna Romanova?’ I hear the captain of the Imperial Preobrazhensky Regiment addressing me. His son is my godchild, but can I trust him completely for all that? I feel as if I am drowning and shield Ivan’s cradle with my body. In the gilt- framed mirrors I see my face floating ghostly pale above the dark green uniform jacket; my ash-blonde curly hair has slid down from beneath a fur cap. On a simple leather thong around my neck hangs the diamond-studded icon of St Nicholas that is priceless to me. They will have to prise it from my dead body to take it from me. I am almost thirty-two years old. Tonight, I shall not betray my blood. ‘I am ready,’ I say, my voice trembling, bracing myself, as the door bursts open and the soldiers swarm in. Everything comes at a price.
Meet The Author
Ellen Alpsten was born and raised in the Kenyan highlands, where she dressed up her many pets and forced them to listen to her stories.
Upon graduating from the ‘Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris’, she worked as a news-anchor for Bloomberg TV London. While working gruesome night shifts on breakfast TV, she started to write in earnest, every day, after work, a nap and a run. So much for burning midnight oil!
Today, Ellen works as an author and as a journalist for international publications such as Vogue, Standpoint, and CN Traveller. She lives in London with her husband, three sons, and a moody fox red Labrador.
‘124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old — as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard) […] leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road’.
Beloved is one of those books that seeps into your soul and never really leaves. In that powerful opening paragraph we see a house full of supernatural activity. A house that men leave. Where only women have the strength to live alongside the demons of the past. The baby ghost who haunts Sethe is full of rage and throws tantrums like a toddler, yet instead of throwing her bottle on the floor she has the power to fling furniture at the wall, even the dog doesn’t escape unscathed. Sethe escaped Sweet Home, the farm where she was enslaved, over eighteen years ago. She has borne such terrible suffering and yet has survived, whole in body and mind. There is just this one thing, the possession of the house by her first daughter, who died when she was a baby. All it says on her grave stone is one word, Beloved. So when a teenage girl turns up at the house claiming to be her daughter, Sethe wants to believe it’s true. If it’s true, maybe what happened back at the farm was just a terrible dream. When Paul D arrives – a freed slave from the same place – his remembrances and ability to look forward instead of over his shoulder, will clash with Sethe who is stuck.
“To Sethe, the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay. The ‘better life’ she believed she and Denver were living was simply not that other one.” […] Yet the morning she woke up next to Paul D, the word her daughter had used a few years ago did cross her mind and she thought… Would it be all right to go ahead and feel? Go ahead and count on something?”
Until now, being in this liminal space is the only way she can be with her other daughter. Neither fully in the past, nor creating a new future, Sethe can’t move on without acknowledging the cost of slavery. At No 124, the ghost of slavery is literal and inescapable. Sethe may no longer be enslaved as the novel opens, but she can never forget what slavery as an institution did to her as a person. When a young woman claiming to be the now-adult Beloved comes to Sethe’s house, Sethe begins to believe that she might avoid facing the truth. Instead she might at last be able to forget: if Beloved is truly alive, then her terrible fate never happened, and so slavery may also be erased, forgotten, papered over. But it rapidly and inexorably becomes clear that forgetting is impossible. This incredible book has the feel of the supernatural, but it’s haunting is one of traumatic memory. Sometimes things happen to us that have to be pushed to the back of our minds. It’s as if we’ve accidentally forgotten, but really it’s a conscious choice to build a mental wall between our psychological ‘self’ and the trauma.
However, Sethe’s trauma is now embodied twice. The scar that covers her back looks like a tree. The lash has broken up and knotted the skin leaving a texture like bark. When Paul D sees her back for the first time, he does not flinch. Instead he traces the lines and kisses the branches, framing the mark of what she’s gone through as a positive thing. The tree could symbolise Sethe’s growth. She stands, a mighty oak of a woman, who doesn’t have to be cowed by her experience. Then Beloved arrives – an angry, spiteful young woman who seems to be very sweet at first, and only wants to be near the mother she’s never had. Denver and Paul D can also see Beloved so she’s not an apparition or figment of Sethe’s imagination. She’s a real woman. In the film, Beloved is played beautifully by Thandie Newton – full of languid grace and always fixing huge pleading eyes on Sethe whether she wants more sugar, more attention, more love. In fact her needs are like those of a baby and must be satisfied. There’s a baby’s narcissism in Beloved and she wants her newly found mother all to herself, trying every means possible to drive a wedge between Sethe and Paul D or her baby sister Denver. She’s not above lying, pleading or even seduction to get her mother to herself.
As Denver and Paul D leave, Beloved is satisfied. However, Sethe is slowly being drained by the girl. She loses energy and isn’t seen in her garden so much. She stops visiting the market for food. The women in the neighbourhood notice and share the strange stories they’ve heard: about a young woman suddenly living at number 124; that Sethe has lost her man; that her daughter Denver left for work in the city; and that Sethe grows thin waiting on her house guest hand and foot, while Beloved grows fatter. The women gather outside 124 in a prayer circle and began to ask God to take back this demon inhabiting Sethe and her home. They don’t believe Beloved exists, not as an actual flesh and blood girl. Can they give Sethe the strength needed to recognise this? Can she own and confront a crucial part of her past?
She will need all of her will for this embodiment of Beloved to leave. She has to recognise that she no longer needs a physical reminder, because instead she needs to integrate a terrible, horrifying act she committed into her psyche. She starts to accept that Beloved’s death was caused by slavery. The descriptions of what happened to Sethe at Sweet Home are truly harrowing and they need to be, so that we as readers understand her actions. Sethe remembers: the lashing that tore her back open; the awful scene in the barn where her husband, hiding in the rafters, is forced to see Sethe pinned down as their master’s sons suckle her baby’s milk away; the horrifying sight of Paul D wearing the ‘bit’ – a terrible metalwork mask that prevents him from speaking. The remarkable thing is that these experiences are not recounted with buckets of emotion. They are merely factual and all the more devastating in their quiet retelling.
In the aftermath of Beloved’s disappearance, Sethe starts to grieve. She acknowledges the beautiful little girl she held in her arms that day. The day that her love for her children was so great, she could not bear to see them taken back to the horror she’d fled. As Paul D tries to comfort her she keeps repeating ‘she was my best thing’.
“He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. ‘You your best thing, Sethe. You are.’ His holding fingers are holding hers.”
Now Sethe must learn to put herself first. Not to forget Beloved, her first born who liked to eat the burned edges of bread, but to forgive herself. To place the blame at slavery’s door, rather than her own. Paul D has returned to something for the first time in a life where he’s done nothing but run. He can’t articulate his feelings for Sethe, but when he’s with her he can let the horrors that slavery inflicted on him melt into the background. She has shared his experience and this removes any shame he feels for being collared and yoked like an animal. His memories no longer remove his manhood from him. He encourages Sethe to move forward with him, to start experiencing less yesterdays and more tomorrows. Beloved, in hindsight, becomes an embodiment of their past. Resurrecting the past is always painful, and Beloved is painful, difficult and confusing to encounter. In Beloved, a traumatic history is restored and rescued from years of buried memories and enforced silence.
This was my first introduction to the work of Will Carver. My fellow bloggers and Squad Pod members kept telling me about how great his writing is, but I’d not taken the plunge till now. I started the book last night and finished at lunchtime today, because I was hooked from the end of the first chapter.
Abe Schwartz lives in a one-bed furnished flat. An apartment building called The Beresford. The bell rings and he’s the one opening the front door to a stranger. Before that, he’s dragging a dead body into his room, mopping up blood and asking himself, What the hell just happened?
Maybe I’m a bit weird, but a cracking beginning like that really is so darkly delicious I can’t help but read on. I was then blown away by the originality and inventiveness of the writer and the explosion of historic and popular culture references the book created in my mind.
The Beresford is an old forbidding looking building in the city. In my imagination this first conjured up the Gothic towers of the Dakota Building, where John Lennon lived and was killed back in 1981. Inside The Beresford are a number of apartments, bigger and better appointed than you would expect for the money. They even have large roll top baths. The perfect size to dismember and dissolve a body. The building is presided over by a lovely old lady called Mrs May, who starts every day the same way. By brewing a coffee while the taps run, then enjoying a bath with bubbles, followed by eggs with her cold coffee. She has a routine, and is found at the same time every day pruning the roses in the front garden. As any fan of the film The Ladykiller’s knows, you should never underestimate sweet looking, little old ladies. Of course she has time to pray each day, but to whom and for what? In fact when I first encountered Mrs May praying, I hoped there would never be a film version of the book. She knows everything that happens at the Beresford because the same thing happens over again – some people leave and some people just disappear. Occasionally they stay. For a price.
The atmosphere is strangely claustrophobic and reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby. I loved the tone of our narrator, who is quite matter of fact, and cleverly combines both horror and humour. I also loved the sense of history the author creates about this quirky building. These stories and urban myths reminded me of a documentary I’d watched about the Chelsea Hotel, again in New York, showing how each generation of residents impacted on it’s history: from the original collective of 1920’s writers; 1960’s musicians and artists like Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen; from the death of Dylan Thomas in the 1950’s to Sid Vicious killing Nancy nearly thirty years later. It’s legends are almost bigger than the hotel itself and it’s often claimed as the most haunted hotel in NYC. It’s somehow bigger than just a building, it’s almost an instant portal to the past. The Beresford is described in a similar way is as if it could only belong on old news reels or sepia photographs. Yet there it is, still standing on the sidewalk in the 21st Century. The myths about The Beresford give the place a sense of longevity – it was there before you and sure as hell will be there after you. Sid Vicious told the Associated Press that the Chelsea Hotel “…is a vortex – an artistic tornado of death and destruction and love and broken dreams”. I think second floor Beresford resident Sythe, artistic impressionist and sometime pyromaniac, would probably say the same thing.
Interspersed with the comings, and often darkly humorous, goings of the residents are sections entitled ‘What do you Want?’ We don’t know who the speaker is, although I will admit I imagined a few of these monologues in the voice of Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus from The Matrix. It’s as if we are having our world explained to us, but in a way that lifts the scales from our eyes. This is what’s really going on. These sections address beauty pageants, social media usage and even the way we buy our books. We like to think we ‘discover’ something in a bookshop, but we’re directed to it by placement, marketing, and demographic. Or perhaps by book bloggers? They know so much more about us than we think they do. Ever talked briefly about a subject at home then found an advert for the very same thing on your iPad? It’s listening. In a piece that I loved because it’s unsettling and so close to the truth, our narrator tells us:
You are being told what to watch, who to vote for, which team to support and which God to believe in. You want the truth? All of these things serve to obscure the greatest lie of all. The fruit and vegetables are placed at the front of the supermarket because the colours draw you in. Everything behind is bad for you. But you just see the colours. You buy into them. You believe them. It’s easy to do as you are told.
You are not where you think you are.
Finally, when lovely, peppy, young Christian Blair joins the residents she strikes up a friendship with Abe. Mrs May thought they might get along, just like Mrs May knows a lot of other things. There’s nothing she doesn’t know about the residents of her building. He takes her to the building’s side entrance where they get into the Art Deco lift to access other apartments and convention suites. The side where they live is just two floors with it’s own front entrance, but this is bigger, especially at the top, where apparently a couple fell to their death on the sidewalk. Abe calls this side the ‘bad side’. There’s a man who sees them and calls out. The couple break into a run for the old elevator and hope he doesn’t get there before the slow mechanism starts to move. They then burst out into the street laughing. Maybe one day the author will venture further into the other side of The Beresford? If so, I’ll be waiting – but I’ll probably stick to reading in the daylight hours.
Meet The Author
Will Carver is the bestselling author of the January Series – Girl 4 (2011), The Two (2012), The Killer Inside (2013), Dead Set (2013) – and the critically acclaimed Detective Pace series, which includes Good Samaritans (2018), Nothing Important Happened Today (2019) and Hinton Hollow Death Trip (2020), all of which were selected as books of the year in mainstream international press. The books in this series have also been longlisted/shortlisted for the Amazon Readers Independent Voice Award, Goldsboro Books Glass Bell Award, Not The Booker Prize and the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year Award. Will spent his early years living in Germany, but returned at age eleven. He studied theatre and television at King Alfred’s Winchester, where he set up a successful theatre company. He currently runs his own fitness and nutrition business and lives in Reading with his children.
This slow, but sinister tale concerns three generations of the Evans family. The Evans women that is. In 1935, Emily Evans vanishes from her family’s summer cottage, set by a lake in a Minnesota backwater. The woods are searched, the lake is dredged, but there is no sign of Emily – the child their mother dotes on the most. Unable to leave the place their sister vanished, Lucy and Lilith Evans go through their father’s subsequent suicide and nurse their mother till she too dies,
Sixty years later, Lucy the quiet middle sister, starts to write the story of that summer, when everything changed. She writes for her Great-Niece Justine and hopes she will understand what happened and set things right. She knows Justine will find it, because she chooses to leave her the house in her will and it comes at the right time. Justine has two daughters and lives with her boyfriend Patrick, but of late his behaviour has worried her. Does he just care about where she is and what she’s doing, or is he controlling her? The house on the lake becomes their refuge, their only neighbour is a taciturn old man who lives at the lodge.
The author tells her story through Lucy and Justine, across the two timelines, as the old mystery and the new drama play out. It’s a structure that works because the past always illuminates the present. The story starts out slowly, setting the scene and giving the reader a deep understanding of these characters and their motivations. The early chapters are almost hypnotic, then the pace builds. By the time both stories reached a crescendo, I was completely drawn in and my partner had to keep me supplied with of tea. I simply didn’t want to move till I finished it.
There’s an incredible sense of place in the novel. We see the lake at different times. In 1935 it’s summer and the family are there all week, with their father joining them from town at the weekend. We see the place as a child would see it: pools to swim in, trees to climb, forests to explore and under one of the cottages some kittens to play with. The place has a warmth and benign feel to it on the surface, that is at odds with an undercurrent that keeps bubbling up. Lilith wants to be more grown up than she is, dressing up a little and sitting with the slightly older kids. Lucy’s voice is anxious constantly where her sister’s antics are concerned, but it’s not clear where the fear comes from. Is she just afraid of her older sister leaving her behind or is something more sinister at play? There’s also a definite ‘middle child’ feeling to her observation that Lilith is catching her parent’s attention by pushing their religious boundaries, and baby Emily is never away from their mother’s side. Emily is definitely the favoured child, but again there’s something odd about the way their mother clings to her, sleeps with her every night and becomes hysterical if she slips out of sight.
By comparison, when Justine and her girls arrive at the lake house it is winter. Instead of feeling like a place to holiday, the landscape is bleak and the remoteness feels threatening. There’s constant talk in town of storms to come, people preparing to be snowed in and getting their supplies. Instead of being a welcoming family home, the cottage has definitely seen better days and there is a haunted quality to it. It’s not just the portrait of Emily set above the mantle with two candles under it. It’s not just that Justine feels like the child’s dark eyes follow her round the room, there’s a sadness and a sense that something terrible happened here, like an imprint left on the air. Matthew at the lodge house also seems a little scary on the surface, but he does plough the drive for the girls to get to school and Justine finds he’s left her a brand new snow shovel just before a blizzard hits. It felt like the remaining Evans girls has needed a place to heal together, without a man in tow. However, the place itself needed to heal and only this generation of the Evans girls could do it.
There are clues everywhere, and different characters hold separate parts of the puzzle. Justine doesn’t want to be like her mother is, always running to the next place and never feeling settled and at peace. She doesn’t want it for her girls either. When danger does come to the lake for a second time, will Justine be the Evans girl who makes the right choices? This was a slow burning tale, that crept up on me and drew me into this sixty year old mystery. I was compelled to read to the end and find what secrets were buried at the lake, and what sort of closure the remaining Evans girls could find.
Meet The Author
Heather is the author of two novels. Her debut, The Lost Girls, won the Strand Award for Best First Novel and was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Her second novel, The Distant Dead, was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Novel and named one of the ten best mystery/suspense books of 2020 by Booklist. A former antitrust and intellectual property litigator, she traded the legal world for the literary one and earned her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars in 2011. She lives in Mill Valley, California, where she writes, bikes, hikes, and reads books by other people that she wishes she’d written.
Wow, this is heartbreakingly sad, but so beautiful too. Rich is dying. Funny, charming, Rich has a love of cheese and throwing parties. He has a son called Ollie who is neuro-diverse and a wife called Ruth who is coping with so much anyway, how will she cope with his death? The book covers Rich’s attempts to live, while dying. There’s also the aftermath of his death where Ruth and Ollie have to learn how to cope without the most important person in their life. Ruth finds it very hard to accept that her time with Rich is now limited and she has no idea when he will die. As time passes, Ollie finds it harder too. He doesn’t understand what it means to die. So, Rich devises a plan and involves his son in choosing gifts for those he loves, as something to remember him by. Ollie loves puzzles and he sees the presents as clues – he thinks each gift has a hidden meaning that his Dad chose to teach him the meaning of life.
The story is told through the important people in Rich’s life and it begins with Ollie. Ollie has realised that the gifts went to the wrong people and he must rectify the mistakes, because otherwise he’ll never understand life or death. He is starting to come apart at the seams but has anyone noticed? Ruth is struggling to cope with his obsessive rituals and her grief is all encompassing. In counselling we refer to ‘complicated grief’ – this can happen when a death is: unexpected with things unresolved or left unsaid, a sudden decline or an accident, the result of a crime, long-term health related with caring roles attached, complicated by circumstances such as being out of touch or at odds with each other, or where a disease is hereditary. Here, Ruth and Ollie haven’t really had time to prepare and their lives have had to adapt very quickly. Ruth can’t fall apart because she has to be there for Ollie, but it is wearing her down and she needs to deal with her own feelings too. I liked the way the author brought in other voices, from Ruth’s family to Rich’s own mother and father, each with their own grief and needs.
The author is a great observer of human behaviour and family dynamics. We can see how grief passes through this family, less like ripples on a pond and more like a shockwave passing through everyone in the vicinity. I talk with clients about the circle of grief – this is a series of concentric circles with the person experiencing the bereavement in the centre, next their spouse or partner, then in layers outwards until we get to the wider community. This is a simple tool that works well in the context of working with an individual because in that space, they are the afflicted person. We show how grief is expressed outward – with people in the outer circles expressing grief outward to family, friends, then they go to workmates or the wider community. Then comfort is expressed inwards, with those in outer circle ‘shoring up’ those further in, giving them the strength to support those in the inner circle. People in the outer circles should not be expecting comfort from those in the centre. Yet, grief is rarely so neatly expressed and the circles are often breached. This could be because of narcissism or lack of boundaries. However, more likely, what happens is shown very clearly in this book. Everyone is at the centre of their own circle. Ruth has to show comfort outward to Ollie and to Rich’s parents who are both struggling with their own grief and the added complication of dementia. Some people simply can’t put another’s needs in front of their own.
When we face a huge upheaval or loss in our lives, we experience it through our own filter. Made up of our own experiences, the emotions we find it easy or difficult to express, our own bias or prejudice. The author has written such an authentic story of loss by exploring each character’s filters, their earlier life experiences and the unique relationship they had with Rich. We each grieve in a unique way because of the unique way we connected with that person. In dying, Rich has given them all the secret, of the meaning of life. It’s in the connections we have with another person and in a way Ollie is right – the gifts do hold the secret. Rich has bought each person something he thinks will remind them of him, in the context of the relationship they had. Knowing each person will miss him in a different way. His life was all about encouraging other’s to enjoy everything life offers and all its variety. I thought the book was emotionally intelligent, full of complex and interesting characters and explored beautifully what happens when such a big personality is taken from a family. A final mention must go to that beautiful cover, with Ollie using his binoculars to focus on the beautiful variety of life in the world. Simply stunning.
Meet The Author
Harriet Kline works part time registering births, deaths and marriages and writes for the rest of the week. Her story Ghost won the Hissac Short Story Competition and Chest of Drawers won The London Magazine Short Story Competition. Other short stories have been published online with Litro, For Books’ Sake, and ShortStorySunday, and on BBC Radio 4. She lives in Bristol with her partner and two teenage sons.