Fancy some tartan noir? Today I have the cover reveal and pre-order link for Anne Pettigrew’s new novel Not The Deaths Imagined.
In 1990s Glasgow, Dr Beth Semple is juggling motherhood and a busy NHS practice. She informs the authorities when she notices an odd pattern of deaths in her area, but they remain unconvinced. Beth believes she’s got it right and her professional reputation is on the line. A stream of targeted harassment follows and Beth finds herself and her family at risk. Could a well-liked local GP be a killer? Beth is rushing to put all the pattern pieces together before any more deaths occur. Will the authorities realise their mistake in time?
I read Anna McPartlin’s last novel The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes just last year and remember being profoundly moved by the story of Mia ‘Rabbit’ Hayes and her love for Johnny Faye. Johnny was the singer in her older brother’s band and Rabbit went from lurking around to catch sight of Johnny to becoming the band’s sound engineer. Sadly they didn’t have much time together as Johnny was diagnosed with MS in it’s most aggressive form and he died. They had a short but glorious time in love, but then Rabbit was diagnosed with cancer and also died young leaving behind her daughter Juliet. This sounds like a really heavy, issue led, novel but somehow the author managed to keep it light by bringing in the exploits of the band and the Hayes family. The Hayes family are a boisterous Irish clan who are as funny and fierce as they are loving and supportive. I really enjoyed the novel, so when I had the chance to read this sequel I couldn’t wait to get started.
This novel follows the aftermath of Rabbit’s death, from organising her funeral it covers a time period of two years. The entire Hayes family is in shock and everyone reacts in different ways. Her father Jack retreats to his attic and tries his best to get his daughter’s diaries published. Her mother, the formidable Molly Hayes, struggles with some of Rabbits final decisions. There’s the question of who Juliet will now live with, whether any of her other children have the ‘gene’ and firstly what on earth they will Rabbit wear for her funeral? All of which is told in well researched detail and with a hefty dose of black humour.
The author explores how people grieve differently. Some people shut themselves away and wallow in nostalgia. Others might put in a brave face to support others but feel like they are dying inside. Some get lost in distractions to avoid the pain. The author is very skilled at presenting family dynamics and how each person, although seemingly very different, fits into their place.. As a family the Hayes often argue, storm out and have to take time away to see things more clearly. It shows how grief is as individual as the relationship every character has had with Rabbit. Each character is trying to find a way to keep Rabbit close, relevant and present in their day to day lives. This could be through their faith, by talking to her still or by publishing a book so that every one of them can spend time with Rabbit between those pages.
Finally, the author shows that life truly does go on despite most of the characters not being ready for it yet. Grief can make us feel like our life is on pause, but around us things are changing and we can’t stay still forever. So we see Rabbit’s best friend Marjorie struggling to build a relationship with her mother, who hasn’t always been there for her. Now she needs help and Marjorie needs to decide whether she can do it and whether she will always be in love with Rabbit’s brother Davey. Juliet has to start a whole new life with her guardian and starts to feel the stirrings of first love. Grace, the eldest sister, has a huge secret she knows will further devastate the Hayes family and can’t bring herself to tell. Molly’s exploits, including protesting the introduction of water charging in Ireland, are loud, comical and unexpected. She is an absolute powerhouse, supporting and feeding everyone, taking on waifs and strays and constantly pulling the family together. Yet she seems dogged by guilt and struggles with her faith, wondering whether Rabbit was right and there really is nothing after death. These are big subjects but I found myself laughing more than feeling sad. I loved the black humour that’s common where people are facing dark times and the warmth of the Hayes family. I could imagine each family member vividly thanks to the author’s skill in creating these characters. Once the novel was finished I knew I would miss them all.
Publication 23rd July 2020. #BonnierBooks
Thanks to #NetGalley for the ARC of this novel in exchange for my review.
This is a moving and ultimately uplifting story based around the padlocks left on bridges as love tokens. I remember visiting Venice and seeing locks like this on the Rialto Bridge and thinking they were romantic. It had never occurred to me before what might happen if the bridge railings were filled with them. It hadn’t occurred to me that there might prove too many or they might cause structural damage to the bridge, due to their weight. In Upchester there are several bridges, immortalised in a famous boyband’s music video which showed them leaving padlocks on the bridge. Now their fans like to take pictures on the bridge and leave locks of their own in tribute to their favourites.
Mitchell is the man employed to deal with the padlocks if there are too many. He has his trusty bolt cutters to hand and clears the bridge of its love tokens. However, this hasn’t always been his job and there’s a reason the bridges are close to his heart. Mitchell is trained as an architect and had input in designing Upchester’s latest bridge. When he lost his wife Anita, he decided to leave for a job that would fit round his daughter Poppy’s school times. Poppy is 9 years and was used to living in the family’s country cottage with her Mum. Now she’s without Mum and living in her Dad’s city flat, the one he used to use when stuck in town for work. Poppy likes to be able to stand on her bed and peer at the stars through her skylight.
One particular day as Mitchell is nearing the bridge, he sees a young woman in a yellow dress. She stands out because she is so still when everyone else is bustling to and fro. In the next second she is gone and it takes a moment for Mitchell to realise she is in the water. He immediately dives in to rescue her, and when they reach the bank he’s exhausted. In the moments that follow he doesn’t get to speak to her or understand whether she jumped or fell. His main concern is Poppy who he’s now late for, so he makes his excuses and rushes to collect her from her music lesson. When he arrives at the music teacher’s house Poppy is calmly having some tea and while she finishes he makes uncomfortable small talk with Lisa, her teacher. Then he spots a photograph of three women and seems to recognise one of them. It’s a picture of Lisa with her two sisters. When Mitchell says that one of them was the girl in the yellow dress, Lisa is shocked. Her sister Yvette has been missing for a long time, yet Mitchell has seen her that afternoon. From that moment Mitchell is drawn into searching for Yvette alongside Lisa and against his better judgement. He soon learns that this is a family with a lot of secrets.
It might seem like Mitchell gives a lot to Lisa in helping her, but actually the help runs both ways. We realise that Mitchell is quite structured, even regimented, with Poppy. He schedules their days on paper stuck to the wall and Lisa softly makes fun of this part of his personality. Mitchell says it’s better for Poppy to have structure, but these plans are more for him than her. If you’re constantly busy there’s never time to think. Slowly, we realise that Mitchell has PTSD, but also feels enormous guilt about the last months of his relationship with his late wife. Lisa challenges this structure by not following a plan and going with the flow. When they visit her aunt there’s an impromptu sleep out next to a campfire. Mitchell is trying desperately not to freak out and once he has relaxed he starts to enjoy the experience. He needs easing out of his comfort zone, for Poppy’s sake as well as his own.
Letters are also a big theme in the novel. Mitchell spends a few moments in bed at night writing to his late wife. He tells her about his day, about Poppy but also about how sorry he feels for the way he was when they were together. When Mitchell was an architect he had an integral role designing a new bridge for the city. He’s a traditionalist and his favourite existing bridge is a simple red brick archway. There’s a new girl on the team though and she is a modernist, with a rival design for the bridge. Mitchell becomes threatened by her and starts to work longer hours, staying more at his city flat and missing out on family moments, such as Poppy taking part in a performance. He makes promises and doesn’t keep them. He takes his wife for granted and when she’s gone the guilt he feels is overwhelming. Lisa is trying to get Mitchell back into loving life and forgiving himself for the past.
Mitchell also starts to receive letters, thanks to his heroics on the bridge. A local journalist features the story in the paper and people start to write to this hero who has captured their imagination. Some simply congratulate him. Others are more personal, from people who are struggling with life and now have a outlet for their painful secrets. They tell him their secrets and he replies where he can. He finds the letters intrusive and asks the reporter to stop bringing them, but the change is actually positive. Slowly the letters make Mitchell open up more, he starts to move away from the list filled with hope and possibilities for the future.
This is a lovely, feel-good novel where the characters have such a beneficial effect on each other. I loved the themes of locks and letters. They give that sense of unlocking parts of ourself we’ve kept hidden, and possibly allowing others in. Grief can bring with it a fierce need to keep everything safe, so we lock emotions away, and regulate activities, removing any element of chance from our lives. This is what Mitchell has done, but not just for himself, but for Poppy too. He wants to keep her safe, but he’s actually stopping her from enjoying life to the full. Encountering Yvette was something Mitchell couldn’t control and like a key, she opens his life back up. This is such a hopeful book and such a cheerful lockdown read.
This is a thriller that’s bound to put you off letting your kids spend a gap year summer island-hopping in Greece! Dark at heart and so twisty you never know who to trust. Alistair Halston has a broken heart. His university girlfriend Ellie has broken up with him before the summer and has gone to spend her holiday in Greece. Planning to follow her and win her back, Alistair has a very different summer break from the one he expected.
Everything starts to go wrong when he encounters outgoing Aussie, Ricky after losing his wallet. With no money or passport, Alistair decides to work and earn some cash before presenting himself at the British Embassy for help. However, help comes in the form of Ricky who offers him work at a luxury villa owned by Heinrich, a German painter. It soon becomes clear that the work is a little unusual. Heinrich likes to paint beautiful people so Alistair’s job is to recruit both men and women as artist’s models. But he must also make sure their morals are fluid enough to be open to further work – sleeping with Heinrich for money. He’s surprised by how many are open to the offer, but that’s not the end of the enterprise. Ricky carries a video camera everywhere recording parties and sexual exploits, even those of Alistair himself when he gets lucky at a villa party. After several weeks, and having a few thousand stored under his pillow, Alistair thinks about making his move and going off to find Ellie. Ricky and Heinrich are putting together plans for a huge party, so maybe he’ll leave afterwards. What he sees over the next few days terrifies him and makes him realise he is complicit in a series of horrific crimes. Not only that, but the organisers have carefully made sure he’s on film. Can he ever leave now that he knows everything? Will they ever let him? Worst of all, is Ellie safe here on the Greek Islands?
This is a fast moving plot, full of complex twists and turns that I didn’t see coming. One in particular made me literally jump in my deckchair! The backdrop of the islands is beautiful but also bleak and difficult terrain. Alistair is also at the mercy of a small population who all know each other – tourists stand out and it would be unlikely one would be trusted above a local. In order to complete his quest safely, Alistair has to think like a criminal and commit petty crimes, don multiple disguises and pit himself against a local, and potentially corrupt, police force. Arguably, he becomes as criminal as those he’s trying to escape. The pace meant it was hard to find a good place to stop, so there was a tendency to keep reading. Each discovery Alistair makes brings about even more questions, about how long Ricky had been targeting Alistair, who on the police force is working with them and how they’ve evaded capture for so long. I didn’t feel I got to know all the characters very well but it’s not that sort of novel. It’s all about the action, the twists and blistering pace. This is a great summer read but be warned; next time you’re abroad it could put you off making friends at the bar.
Ellen sees the world differently from everyone else, but living in a tiny town in the north-east of England, in a world on the cusp of war, no one has time for an orphaned girl who seems a little strange. When she is taken in to look after an rich, elderly widow all seems to be going better, despite the musty curtains and her aging employer completely out of touch with the world. But pregnancy out of wedlock spoils all this, and Ellen is unable to cope. How will Jack, her son, survive – alone in the world as his mother was? Can they eventually find their way back to each other?
Juliet Bates studied art and art history in Bristol, Birmingham and Strasbourg, and has since lectured at graduate and post graduate levels. She moved to France in 2000 to a post as professeur at the Ecole régionale des beaux-arts Caen la mer. She has published a number of short stories in British and Canadian literary journals.
Today I am lucky enough to have one free copy of this beautiful book to give away. Simply comment on this blog post by Friday 19th June at 12pm. A winner will be picked at random to receive a hardback copy. UK only.
Keep following the blog tour dates below for more information on The Colours and blogger reviews of the book.
Ed and Claire are hosting a Sunday get together for their daughter Abbie and her new boyfriend Ryan. Although they’ve been together a few months, he’s been working away so much they haven’t had chance to spend any time with him. On the face of it Ryan is the perfect candidate to keep Mum and Dad happy. He has a great job, a first-class degree and a past army career with the Anglian Regiment. He’s charming and very good looking. Abbie seems happier than Ed has seen her in a long time. However, there only has to be one catch, and as Ed catches Ryan’s dark eyes they seem endless. However, Ed senses a void behind them and wonders if the man standing in front of him is the real Ryan at all. As Ryan asks for Abbie’s hand in marriage, Ed is horrified. Even worse, they plan to marry in less than six weeks. This leaves Ed very little time to investigate and without much to go on. Like every protective Dad, he’s going to stop at nothing to protect his daughter. Is Ryan simply too good to be true, or is Ed’s obsession with his daughter getting out of hand?
I’m daughter of an overprotective dad, so I bought into the premise immediately. Told largely from Ed’s perspective, this is one of those cliched ‘couldn’t put it down’ books, that I devoured in one day while recovering from a back injury. I trusted Ed as a narrator, but every so often a little clue was popped in there to throw doubt on his character or state of mind. The secret visits to a building near Hooters, his attitude towards Abbie’s previous boyfriend George or the terribly sad family loss that could explain his inability to let go of his daughter. The author keeps the tension going by slowly counting down the days to the wedding. There are also tense set pieces: Ed and Ryan racing through Nottingham traffic at rush hour; Ed letting himself into Ryan’s house only for Ryan to come home unexpectedly; Ryan driving along while Abbie reads through the private investigator’s report.
There are times when it seems Ed is so reckless I thought the obsession might be getting out of hand. In pursuit of Ryan’s past he is mugged on a sink estate and almost arrested for soliciting. His manager is asking for work he doesn’t produce and he looms close to disciplinary action. His relationship with his wife Claire is suffering and she warns him that the more he pursues this, the more he will push their daughter away. Yet Ryan does have some questions to answer. He appears to have no family and isn’t visiting his mum’s grave every other Sunday like he tells Abbie. He visits a drug house regularly and doesn’t appear to have any social media presence before 2013. Ed is willing to spend thousands of pounds on a private investigator in the hope that he will unearth something before the wedding day. I won’t ruin everyone’s read, but the truth, when it is revealed is more far reaching than I imagined. It seems that both men have been in a cat and mouse situation far longer than we realised. The author keeps the story compelling till the very last moments and I enjoyed every minute.
I reached the end of this novel and realised I’d been holding my breath. My whole body was tense. This is a dark, thrilling, journey to the centre of that place we all imagine to be the safest: our home.
Twelve years ago, six year old Jenny Kristal left home to play with a friend two doors away. She never arrived. Now, she’s back. Parents Jake and Laurie are pleased to have her back. They’re not asking many questions about what happened to her, just letting her settle. Yet, when her brother Ben comes home there’s a very different reaction. Ben seems to freeze when he sees her. He doesn’t try to communicate at all. As time goes on, he starts to ask questions, awkward questions. He also brings up memories of the two of them, but are they real or is he trying to catch her out? Does he suspect she’s not his sister? Is he paranoid or is he right?
I love novels and films that subvert the missing child genre. This had shades of the BBC series The Missing where a family are unsure if their daughter is genuinely returned. The mother is sure it’s not her daughter, whereas the father can’t see it, causing huge conflict within the family. Also on the BBC, was the series Thirteen with the incomparable Jodie Comer as a girl returned to her family after years of captivity. She faces the inevitable questions and suspicions of why didn’t see escape before; why now? In this situation how do you match up the child you’ve lost with the young woman who returns? There’s bound to be dissonance between the version that returns and the girl you remember. The conflict of emotions would be bewildering; you’re meant to be happy and yet there’s a sense of loss for the daughter you expected her to grow into. How hard would it be to return and face those conflicting emotions?
It’s so hard to write about this novel without ruining it with spoilers, but I’ll do my best not to reveal too much. In between the short, sharp, chapters full of dialogue, the author gives us glimpses of dreadful details of what this girl has endured. Whether she is Jenny or not, she has been through a terrible ordeal at the hands of people she calls Mother and Father. Sometimes it’s just a snippet of information, such as a memory brought about when looking at photographs of herself with Laurie. Into her memory comes an unwanted image of a different kind of photograph, taken by abusive parents. Other memories are longer, such as being in the black laundry cupboard for long periods. To be dragged there was terrible, but even worse was to walk yourself there knowing you were powerless. Surely now she’s safe? Between the suspicion of Ben and the girl two doors down,where Jenny was going the morning she disappeared, she feels anything but secure. Prompted by messages from someone called ‘Lorem’ she’s reminded that a little girl disappeared from this house. As I was reading I kept thinking, if this isn’t Jenny then there’s still an undiscovered little girl somewhere, Is everybody in this family as normal or harmless as they seem? Were here memories of torment at this house, with these seemingly normal people. We follow as ‘Jenny’ starts to dig a little deeper, to find out whether this seemingly perfect, but tragic family have secrets of their own.
I was so busy following Ben’s back story: the nightmares and catatonic state he went into after his sister disappeared. Shut away in a school for traumatised children, run by the Catholic Church, he continues to have a terrifying, recurring nightmare. Is this linked to Jenny’s disappearance? Do we take it literally or is it symbolic? Then, I started to wonder about the parents too. Jake and Laurie don’t seem to ever have the same doubts as their son. They seem happy to accept she’s home, never questioning or even offering to talk to her about her ordeal. They don’t seem curious at all. Are they doing this out of consideration for her feelings or are they too scared to hear what she’s gone through? The final revelations are unexpected and shocking. They come just as the reader thinks an ending has been reached, so they have even more impact. It’s tense, gripping and doesn’t shy away from portraying the darker aspects of family life. For some people, home is anywhere but safe.
I am fascinated by places where artists gain inspiration such as the Lake District, Newlyn and Venice, but particularly where colonies of artists have grown and lived together. Charleston would be a place of pilgrimage for me, the home created by Vanessa Bell on the south coast. This was where the Bloomsbury group of artists would stay and their decoration of the house is preserved beautifully ( with their rather entangled love affairs preserved beautifully in the BBC series Life in Squares). So, when offered the chance to read this novel about the artists and writers drawn to the Greek island of Hydra, I was looking forward to diving in. It was read over three gloriously sunny days in my garden, reclined in my steamer chair with a jug of PImms. It was the perfect way to experience the world Polly Samson conjures; an amphitheatre of houses all focused towards the sea, stray cats waiting for the fishing boats, swimming at midnight within a silvery trail of moonlight and a young girl in love for the first time, searching out memories of her mother.
The island of Hydra became a magnet for writers and artists in the 1950s when writers like Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller took up residence. Samson’s novel is set a generation later in the 1960s when the colony seemed to revolve around Australian writers Charmian Clift and her husband George Johnston. Our heroine Erica is 17, mourning the loss of her mother and looking after an increasingly belligerent father in their London home. A parcel arrives addressed to her late mother, and this is the catalyst for a golden summer she will remember all her life. In the parcel is a letter from Charmian Clift and a copy of her latest novel and Erica starts to read about a different world which inspires her. Erica has always wanted to write, and craving adventure as well as a possible link to her mother, she wants to visit the island where Clift lives. Her boyfriend Jimmy is an artist and both she and her brother have a legacy from their mother they can use, as well as a car they didn’t know their mother owned. Erica is armed with blank notebooks and a lot of questions about her mother, so with Charmian’s promise to secure them a cottage, they all set out to Hydra.
Erica is such an appealing character because everything about her feels new, there is so much to experience and we see it all through her naive eyes. At first there is more freedom than she’s ever known, with no one to answer to or look after. She and Jimmy can make love into the afternoon, they don’t need to work so have ample time to create and can finish the day drinking at one of the tavernas and then skinny dip in the still warm sea after dark. She does find herself drawn to Charmian’s house, a bohemian jumble of rooms overrun with children and visitors, and the sound of a grumpy George bashing away on his typewriter. Charmian is the mother of the group: a cook, organiser, listening ear, social secretary and occasional writer. Erica falls in love with the eccentric group that centre around her, including Axel a Norwegian writer who can’t seem to stay faithful to his beautiful wife Marianne, and new arrival Leonard who is a handsome poet from Canada. Erica puts them all on a pedestal, because she sees them as successful, doing a job she has always aspired to and living in this idyllic place. She is similarly in love with Jimmy. As she wakes and sees him lying next to her naked she imagines capturing him just as he is now, beautiful and preserved only for her.
This is a coming of age novel and I enjoyed how the events of the summer open Erica’s eyes, about relationships, the seemingly idyllic community on Hydra, and the realities of being a writer who is also a woman. In their own cottage, Erica finds that her nurturing personality is easily exploited by others busy pursuing their art. While others merely sleep in, then write or paint, Erica is busy fetching water, clearing dishes and collecting supplies. She has also attached herself to Charmian’s home where the door is always open and there are kids to herd. Charmian points out the difference between men and women who write; men get up and retire to their study to create, unencumbered by housework, children or cooking. Just as Virginia Woolf writes decades before, how different would it be if women had a room of their own? A physical room where the door can be shut, but also a metaphorical room – space away from the mental load of running a household. Instead of working on her own book, Charmian is perched in George’s study offering advice, bolstering confidence and sometimes, even providing the words. Whilst downstairs Marianne and Erica herd feral children and keep an eye on the cooking. Marianne is another example, pregnant by husband Axel who is having an affair with a young girl called Patricia. After his departure, she becomes close to the poet Leonard, but it isn’t long before she’s cooking for him, laying out his desk and popping a fresh gardenia in a vase for him. Charmian warns Erica to never let a man clip her wings, observing that she’s seen her looking after Jimmy at the expense of her own writing time.
The sense of place Samson creates is incredible and laid out in my garden, I could imagine lowering my book and seeing the harbour. The place is idyllic, romantic and seductive:
‘The best time for a night swim at the rocks is when the moon is full. I’ll never forget my first phosphorescence: Jimmy coming up the ladder streaming with stars, one caught on an eyelash still blinking away as he reached and pulled me in, our limbs moon-silvered, our fingers trailing through constellations’.
Who could resist a first love with this backdrop? Samson’s descriptions of the characters clothes, their beautiful homes and the incredible Greek cuisine that Charmian is teaching Erica to cook, create a sensual pleasure in the reader; we’re soaking up this world she has created. However, there are hints that once you stay beyond a couple of weeks, you start to see that the island is not the perfect heaven that Erica has built in her mind. They find a live kitten, flea bitten and crusty eyed, thrown away in a bin bag like rubbish. Once he is treated and nurtured by Erica and Jimmy, Cato becomes a wonderfully sleek black cat. The regular residents acknowledge the problem with strays, in fact a writer called Jean-Claude had drugged a colony of them, then thrown them into the sea in a sack. This type of shock in amongst the beauty of the place, is the reader experiencing Erica’s awakening alongside her; nowhere is perfect for longer than it takes to capture a postcard image.
The same lesson lies in wait about the members of this colony. No relationship is perfect, and Erica is in danger of romanticising George and Charmian almost like surrogate parents. To learn that Charmian may have cheated on her husband is bad enough, but George humiliating his wife by writing it as a sex scene in his latest book, causes a lot of tension. Alex leaves the island with Patricia, despite Marianne giving birth to their son. Erica watches Leonard slowly get closer to Marianne and the baby. Will he truly be able to capture her heart or will she always run back to Axel? When Erica looks back in her later years she imagines them both playing on the beach with the baby between them. Could there’s have been the best example of love, looking back? I’d no idea till later in the book that this Leonard is Leonard Cohen and the reader is left to imagine Marianne inspiring his song of the same name. Erica has to learn that most things are temporary. Life isn’t a fairy story which ends happily when the handsome prince chooses his wife. That is simply one moment in a, hopefully, very long life. She sees that no relationship, even her own, is truly safe or within her control. Cracks appear when one night at a local nightspot the group lounge around on large cushions gossiping. The gossips turns to Marianne and Erica is surprised how bitchy it gets, it disillusions and disappoints her.
The author cleverly weaves into the story, these little hints that show life on Hydra, and within this artistic community, is not what it seems on the surface. There are artistic jealousies, even between man and wife, but especially between the men. There’s a degree of suspicion underneath the cheerful socialising. Erica’s relationship with Charmian has ups and downs. Erica sees her as queen of their community., almost like a mother to them all. Perhaps she pushes in and questions her too much at first and Charmian will not divulge any secrets about her mother’s life. Towards the end of the novel the pair meet again in London by chance and Charmian is more forthcoming about Erica’s mother and accompanies her to a protest. When Erica eventually revisits Hydra years later, not many of the old gang are left. Will those that remain full in the blanks for her, or will so much remain obscured by time and her naivety at the time of the events? How will going back bring closure for her? Although I was more interested to see whether Erica had taken the lessons she learned there and applied them to her life. Hydra remains alluringly beautiful and I felt it would have a strange, magnetic power over Erica for the rest of her life. This final visit is about settling memories back into place, with tears and laughter that is so bittersweet,
Now so long, Marianne It’s time that we began to laugh And cry and cry and laugh about it all again
Do I really see what’s in her mind, Each time i think I’m close to knowing She keeps on growing, Slipping through my fingers all the time. ABBA
Years ago, when Mamma Mia first came out at the cinema, I went to see it with my Mum. When it came to the wedding day and Meryl Streep helping her daughter get ready for the ceremony, I saw so much emotion flow through my Mum’s face. I didn’t want to make a fuss, because I knew that if I touched her or asked if she was ok it would make things worse. It threw me a little bit because I couldn’t remember my mum ever being sentimental about me. I’d always been someone, she thought, could took care of herself. On our drive home I asked her what about the scene made her emotional, and she said it wasn’t the scene it was the song ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’. It talks about a mother who never seems able to fully capture a moment with her daughter, because she moves just out of reach all the time. Away to school, on to grammar school, to new friends, boyfriends, university and into a fully grown woman. I’m not sure I fully understood what she felt, I don’t have children, but more recently I became a stepmum to two teenage girls. I can see now, with my eldest, how girls grow so quick and out of your influence. How friends become the people who understand them, how they’re constantly making plans to get away, to visit other places, to move on, to study in another city. It’s as if the woman they’re becoming wipes away the trace of that little girl you once did everything for. This book is about that point between mother and daughter; Rachel sees her daughter Mia slipping through her fingers.
The backdrop to this mother -daughter story is a heatwave and a scandal. The nightmare begins when Mia’s school friend Lily disappears one night when she’s supposed to be at a sleep over with her friends. Mia socialises in a group of five girls, and in parallel Rachel keeps a What’s App group of their mothers aimed at keeping in touch with their daughter’s plans and keeping them safe. Lily disappears in the midst of the heatwave and the author very cleverly uses it to ratchet up the tension. At home and at Mia’s school, where Rachel works as a teacher, the heat is relentless. Rachel notices the girls in class lifting their long curtains of hair, and twisting it into a top knot just to feel some air on the back of their neck. Everyone is somehow more aware of each other’s bodies: the smells, the damp as you stand up from a sitting position, or on your back as you stop driving and get out of the car. Rachel’s also aware of so much young flesh on show. The girls and their golden legs, without a trace of hair. They’re perfection and by comparison Rachel is aware of her own flesh as less taut, just a millimetre too saggy at the jawline.
At night it’s impossible to sleep. In between the oppressive heat and worry about Lilly, there are short chapters detailing an illicit relationship. It feels obsessive and dangerous. There are no names used. Could it be Lily or is someone else keeping a secret? Then police find that Lily took something with her. A camisole belonging to her mother. That means she chose to go and for a moment everyone breathes, until they realise that means she didn’t go alone and that person is possibly older and might still mean her harm. Rachel asks Lily’s parents if she can look over her bedroom, just in case there is something the police have overlooked. Something that might only have meaning to those who know the girls well. She finds, on Lily’s notice board, some song lyrics and straight away she knows, she knows who Lily is with. The shock reverberates through her. She should tell the police straight away, but she can’t, she needs to process it first. To think it through before the police do find out, because that could bring even worse trouble. Yet, if it’s ever found out that she knew and kept it to herself, she could be in trouble with the police or even lose her job.
Instead of speaking out, Rachel becomes scared and takes to following her daughter Mia, over to the playground where her friends hang out. Even though they’ve been interviewed by police, all four of Mia’s gang swear they don’t know where Lily is. At the playground they perfect dance moves, new ones that are provocative and possibly learned from watching music video. Then the boys join them and the girls change subtly with Mia kissing her boyfriend Aaron. Again referencing the body, Rachel notices Aaron’s physicality, his sheer size compared to Mia. His large hands on her. In light of Lily’s disappearance, Rachel wants to know him better and invites him for tea. He looms large at their table, almost a man. He starts to ask uncomfortable questions.; why shouldn’t Lily be left alone? He argues that she’s almost 16, what could possibly happen within a matter of weeks that would make her more ready for an adult relationship? Rachel is saved slightly by her husband Tim turning up at the door, he’s home early from working abroad. In bed later he warns Rachel that she needs to back off where Mia is concerned. Tim is concerned that Rachel’s scrutiny will destroy their relationship.
I enjoyed the author’s depiction of how Rachel copes with growing older, made especially difficult by her past and Mia’s growing beauty, Rachel has placed a photo outside the downstairs loo. It shows her at her peak of youth and beauty as the singer in a band. In skimpy clothes and torn tights I imagined her look like Courtney Love, the lead singer in Hole back in the 1990s. Rachel seems to be embarrassed when people recognise her, but it seems likely that people will see it, because of where it’s placed. It’s as if she wants to show she was once cool and beautiful. It’s an ego boost for her. There’s a disturbing scene later, when she takes Mia’s prom dress and tries it on. She’s pleased to be able to fit into it, but what seemed harmless turns into something else when Mia comes home. In another scene she has thoughts about Lily, and her first time sharing a living space with a man. Rachel imagines her worrying about how to do all the things that make her beautiful: the shaving, plucking and preening are no longer private and mysterious I wondered if these concerns were really for Lily or whether they were about her own beauty rituals. Would she ever be able to accept her ageing process and know she can be attractive at any age?
The mysterious man at the centre of Lily’s disappearance exerts a strange hold over the women involved with him. The author doesn’t ever give us his thoughts or feelings. We just get snippets of musical taste, but it’s clear he is either beguiling or emotionally/psychologically abusive. One disturbing scene shows him and his unnamed lover enter a freezing cold river in their underwear. He goes in first as if to give her the motivation and even though he says very little, it’s clear the female feels compelled to move in deeper and deeper until she feels the current trying to carry her away. I sensed that he wants her to feel powerless without him. I wasn’t surprised to learn who the anonymous lovers are in these sections, but the ending did surprise me. As everything comes to a head towards the Prom, Rachel gets a chance to see her daughter anew; Mia arrives as a woman, not the girl who ordered the lilac ballgown, which she sees sullied by her mother. Rachel learns so much about herself and how wrong she has been about any things. As she rushes to support her daughter it’s as if that stifling heat has been affecting her ability to think straight. As the rain starts to come down outside, leaving it’s own unique smell rising from the boiling pavements, Rachel’s eyes clear to see that within the beautiful woman in front of her, there is still a glimmer of the little girl inside again.
In the aftermath of a destroyed reputation, and the death of her mother, Tessa takes refuge at an isolated estate, which is cared for by two elderly sisters. Fallbrook has been left to Tessa in her mother’s will and she hopes to get away from the publicity surrounding a huge lapse of judgement. As a filmmaker she helped free a man she believed was wrongly imprisoned for murder. After he’s freed, he kills again. Without her normal support network, she feels getting away is her only option. Since their mother’s death, she’s had to face tensions from the past particularly her ruined relationship with her sister Margot. So Fallbrook seems like all she has, but all lonely old estates have secrets. The caretaking elderly sisters are looking after Tessa’s family past as well as the crumbling mansion. Will this turn out to be the haven Tessa needs or will her need to find answers create even more problems?
I found this a very atmospheric and absorbing read. From time to time I would be interrupted and find out I wasn’t in a crumbling mansion house full of secrets. Essentially we have two sets of sisters. Tessa and Margot used to be the best of friends, as close as twins can be. They last spoke twenty years ago. Margot’s husband Ben, used to be Tessa’s boyfriend and the one person she could talk to. As Tessa became assailed by anxiety, hospitalised and medicated, she tried to appeal to Ben to intercede with her sister. At Fallbrook there is Deirdre who is practical and forthright. Deirdre looks after Kitty who is now struggling with dementia. They are living in the building, and holding its history and secrets. However, far from trying to keep the place alive they are tasked with watching it, and all its secrets, crumble to the ground and be forgotten.
The family history is a gruesome one. There’s kidnapping, abuse within the family, not to mention Kitty’s dementia. I liked the idea of making her the custodian of the stories, knowing that dementia patients are more often connected with their past than their present made this even more poignant for me. There’s a question in the reader at first over whether she can remember these events or are they part of her delusions? Despite such distressing subjects, Maxwell has a very poetic way of writing about them:
‘ the screams have long since died away. The bloodstains, like the memories, have faded with time’.
As a reader I found myself more engaged with these older stories, than the ongoing conflict in the present. I wanted to unearth more and that kept me reading. This seems to sit in that realm of gothic fiction that contains: narrators recent distress, old gothic mansion, family secrets and younger generation coming along to unearth them. I’ve read a few of these, but I enjoyed this one immensely. It has just the right pace of revelations and the spooky atmosphere was perfection.