Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had the brilliant experience of buddy reading with my eldest stepdaughter. I bought her Rachel’s Holiday and this sequel Again, Rachel for Christmas and she decided to read them in her down time from revising for her A’Levels. I realised it would be a great opportunity to share the reading experience together. I finished this on my weekend away and I genuinely found it hard to look up from the story. For the author, the anxiety of revisiting a much loved character must be huge, because I felt it too. I’d kept it on one side for this long because of that anxiety. I loved Rachel and the whole Walsh family and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what happened next. We’re twenty years on from the end of the last book and Rachel is settled, with a job she loves and a happy home. She works as a senior counsellor at The Cloisters – the place where she started her own recovery journey. She owns a beautiful little house and a garden that’s become an unexpected part of her ongoing recovery and mental well-being. She also has a little dog, Crunchie. There’s also a man, Nick Quinliven (known as Quin) who has a penchant for trying new and exciting things from from the latest restaurant to wild swimming and escape rooms. They haven’t said they love each other yet, but he is an important part of her life. Life is great until Rachel hears that Rose Costello has died. Rose was her mother-in-law and although she hasn’t seen her since she and Luke divorced, she does feel an obligation. Should she go to the funeral or not?
Rachel and Luke have never spoken since he left their Brooklyn flat several years ago and cut all contact. I kept thinking what on earth could have separated these two people who really loved each other? Skilfully taking us back and forth in time, Marian Keyes constructs the intervening years as Rachel copes with the unexpected present and the painful past. Rachel’s whole life is upended as she sees Luke for the first time and tries to cope with the emotions of their reunion. However, she’s also plunged deeply into the past and the reasons she and Luke ended. Rachel is emotionally intelligent and knows all about buried trauma, but is surprised when she experiences all of those emotions afresh as if it only happened yesterday. It upsets her equilibrium, but has that sense of calm recovery merely been a front? Rachel hasn’t wilfully deceived others. She’s deceived herself. Is her version of what happened back then even the truth? If given the chance to connect with Luke and unpick their past, should she take it?
Marian Keyes really knows her stuff when it comes to addiction and mental health. It’s always a joy to read her books because they’re so emotionally intelligent. This framework provides so much depth to the characters and their story. Here she shows us a wounded healer, as Rachel struggles through addiction and loss, but still supports clients to achieve psychological change. I love her courage, because anyone who uses their own pain to help others is an incredible human being. I love how Keyes describes group sessions, as Rachel keeps her boundaries and sticks to her script, no matter how strongly she might be identifying with the client or feeling deeply moved by their story. We get to see that conflict in her; as a human being she might want to comfort that person, but as a therapist she must hold back to effect change. She knows that sometimes it’s important to sit with the feelings, to truly feel negative emotions without distractions or outside comfort. They always pass. I loved the wisdom she’s acquired over the years and how she rides to cope with her own trauma the same way.
I was deeply moved by Luke and Rachel’s experience because I’ve been through something similar. It made some parts hard to read, but it was written beautifully and with an accuracy I really appreciated. Keyes offsets the sadness with the usual comic touches, with Walsh family conferences being a great source of humour. All the sisters have their own idiosyncratic characters, causing conflict at times but we know that love is always present. Mrs Walsh is typically overbearing and contrary and her upcoming ‘surprise’ birthday party is an extra source of stress, especially when she decides to invite her ex-son-in-law. Luckily, the meticulously organised Claire has everything in hand, despite also trying to negotiate a session of swinging for her and her husband. Husband Adam is reluctant, but once convinced he becomes so enthusiastic that Claire is furious with him! The love stories are convincing and both Rachel’s current beau Quin and ex-husband Luke have their strengths. I held out hope for Quin and Rachel because I thought they suited each other. However, once Luke is on the scene the chemistry and unfinished business between him and Rachel is undeniable. Quin isn’t the only obstacle either, Luke’s partner Callie is with him in Ireland and seems very determined to keep Rachel close. I didn’t know if Rachel and Luke would be able to move past their history and connect again, as the people they are now. I loved how they tried their hardest to work through what happened, despite the pain it’s clearly causing. Could they possibly remain friends and share their loss, after all only the two of them can fully understand what they went through. Despite knowing that that Rachel didn’t need either man to build a happy life, I knew where my loyalties as we approached the end. Oh what an ending!! I was snap chatting my stepdaughter and we’d both cried buckets at the ending. I was so glad that Marian Keyes had been brave enough to revisit Rachel again.
Published by Penguin 13th April 2023
Marian Keyes is the international bestselling author of Watermelon, Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married, Rachel’s Holiday, Last Chance Saloon, Sushi for Beginners, Angels, The Other Side of the Story, Anybody Out There, This Charming Man, The Brightest Star in the Sky , The Mystery of Mercy Close, The Woman Who Stole My Life, The Break and her latest Number One bestseller, Grown Ups. Her two collections of journalism, Making it up as I Go Along and Under the Duvet: Deluxe Edition are also available from Penguin.
Edie is finding the world around her increasingly difficult to comprehend. Words are no longer at her beck and call, old friends won’t mind their own business and workmen have appeared in the neighbouring fields, preparing to obliterate the landscape she has known all her life. Rattling around in an old farmhouse on the cliffs, she’s beginning to run out of excuses to stop do-gooders from interfering when one day she finds an uninvited guest in the barn and is thrown back into the past.
Jonah has finally made it to England where everything, he’s been told, will be better. But the journey was fraught with danger and many of his fellow travellers didn’t make it. Sights set firmly on London, but unsure which way to turn, he is unprepared for what happens when he breaks into Edie’s barn.
Haunted by the prospect of being locked away and unable to trust anyone else, the elderly woman stubbornly battling dementia and the traumatised illegal immigrant find solace in an unlikely companionship that helps them make sense of their worlds even as they struggle to understand each other. Crossing Over is a delicately spun tale that celebrates compassion and considers the transcendent language of humanity.
As I started to read Crossing Over I was knocked backwards by how incredibly innovative the narration was, but also how incredibly brave. Edie’s inner world is fractured and of course we don’t know why or what’s going on at first. The author trusts her reader to carry on, to make sense of what’s happening and never underestimates us. We’re plunged headlong into Edie’s world and her desperate attempts to communicate her place in it. The timeless farmhouse she seems to have known all her life, the villagers and her routine of church or WI events all seem to be constants. What’s changing is Edie, as she drops backwards through time, forgets commitments and even visitors or why they are there. As we get to know her, the narrative works on two levels. We are with Edie in whatever time and circumstance her mind places her, but also with Edie as she becomes painfully aware that there’s a way she should be behaving, but even when she’s sure of the proper behaviour it’s often in the wrong context. She’s just on the edge of awareness most of the time, just about recognising from people’s response or facial expressions that she’s not quite hit the mark. Her brusqueness and artificial bonhomie only faintly cover the confusion and fear underneath. The chaos is brilliantly written, in jagged prose that contrasts the inner truth of how much Edie is struggling and the world’s response as it becomes more and more obvious that all is not okay. As Jonah comes into the narrative, also operating at fight or flight level, things become even more confused and complicated. Edie thinks he’s there to spy on her and he’s baffled by the way she communicates, her poor memory and her lapses into the past. Can they come to an understanding of each other and somehow help each other move forward?
This could have been one of those really sentimental novels, designed to be uplifting, but the author avoids that with these complex characters. Not everything about them is sympathetic, they are real and flawed. Edie isn’t a cosy little granny and through her time lapses we start to realise she has experienced traumatic events in her younger years. She has also made bad choices in life. There’s a deeply ingrained sense that there’s one correct way to be and her standards are slipping. Some of the muddled events are a strange mix of humorous and heartbreaking. The cake sale springs to mind, where she has lapsed back to being younger and wears an outfit that’s far too colourful and revealing for an elderly lady with varicose veins to cover. She then offers to keep track of the money and ends up making mistakes, as well as eating a whole batch of highly prized cakes. These types of escapades made me giggle and I loved the way she keeps her head high and won’t bow to their concerns or questions. Yet the fear and anxiety running underneath this forceful front made me feel for her, perhaps because I have a life limiting and degenerative illness I could understand her desperation to stay independent and deny what’s happening to her. Fear makes her angry and lash out, imagining the embarrassment of the vicar and other do-gooders if she let slip some of the secrets she holds about them. I could sense that the past held the clues to Edie’s character and I was waiting for something quite dark to be revealed.
Jonah also holds some dark secrets and memories deep inside, things he has experienced on the journey and from his life before. I read that the author had been very careful writing his character, with a great awareness of the sensitivities involved in writing a black character without that lived experience. She has used sensitivity readers and has revised the novel several times. Yet Jonah isn’t a stereotype or a cardboard cut-out, he has real depth. No one can go through what Jonah has and remain untouched and all credit to the author for not following an easier, and potentially more lucrative, redemption narrative. As a result this might not be to everyone’s taste, but I thoroughly enjoyed delving into two such complex and damaged characters and the disjointed way their stories are told. Have patience with it, get used to the complicated and unreliable narration and you will be rewarded with a rich and thoughtful read about people society increasingly sees as problems to solve, rather than human beings.
Thank you to Renard Press for my proof copy in exchange for an honest review.
‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way’. Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
I’ve been wanting to try a Sarah Stovell novel for the last couple of years, because it’s a name that’s come up with other bloggers as someone I would enjoy. This story had me gripped to the very last page. This is the history of a family, but told like a thriller. We know that one central incident is the lynchpin of the whole story, explaining the family’s geography, personalities and dynamics with each other. Yet the incident isn’t laid bare for the reader. We must go back and forth in time, with the truth only revealed in short bursts and from different family member’s perspectives. Minnie is an academic, a professor of sociology and women’s studies and is married to Bert, another academic. Minnie is also the matriarch of the Plenderleith family: Owen, his wife Sophie and daughter Layla; Lizzie who lives in a platonic partnership with Tamsin and has a daughter, Ruby; then there’s baby Jessie and her wife Anna who have had two babies in quick succession. For the first time, Minnie will have her entire family under one roof for Christmas. This is a rare occasion because Owen lives in Australia and everyone leads very busy lives. Plus there is a tension at the centre of this family, something they never talk about, which has led to misunderstanding, distance and fear. Fear that if the incident is brought into the open and talked about, the family might implode. However, Owen hasn’t brought his wife to England and his teenage girlfriend Nora is in the village, sorting out her father’s house after his death. Could Nora be the catalyst that for an explosive Christmas?
The depth of characterisation in these family members is brilliant. I found myself understanding each family member as I read their section of the narrative. Even where their point of view clashed completely with someone else, or where they’re acting from a complete misunderstanding, I could empathise with their position. I fell in love with Lizzie, probably because I am overweight, nearing middle age and have an abusive relationship behind me. There was an instant understanding of her emotional need for calm, quiet and meditation. I also understood her medication, whether it was food or a prescription from the GP. Lizzie left a physically abusive relationship when her daughter Ruby was 16, with her self-esteem and sense of self eroded almost beyond repair. Lizzie is the jolly, overweight sister who jokes about her love of cake and seems outwardly confident, someone who owns her choices. Underneath though, is a animal that stays curled into a ball waiting for the next kick. Perhaps unable to trust men, or even trust her own judgement, she has found solace in a platonic family unit with friend Tamsin and although they perhaps don’t fully understand it, the family accepts it as a life choice and Tamsin is very much part of the family. Twenty years earlier, when Owen started dating Nora, Lizzie made friends with this unusual girl. Nora is the opposite of Lizzie, she looks like a fragile waif that you would want to feed and look after. Having lost her mother at a young age, Nora only had her father and it wasn’t an ideal relationship, so when Owen started bringing her home, his family became Nora’s family too. Minnie is impressed with her son’s choice, because she’s not into fashion or anything superficial, she’s bright, idealistic and wants to change the world. She’s going to spend summers working on conservation projects in different parts of the world and she follows through on her dreams. She might seem frail, but she’s determined and not scared of stepping out into the world alone. She’s so different to Owen but they have a connection that’s natural, deep and all encompassing.
I really did understand Minnie, a woman with so much education, intelligence and personal experience. She is the centre of the incident and takes so much of the blame for what happened, even though her point of view isn’t unreasonable. Minnie is on her second marriage, her first was to Owen and Lizzie’s father who was a drunk. Minnie was trying to hold down an academic position, run a household and two children, but always on tenterhooks for the next crisis to hit. Would she come home from work and find their father had hurt himself, given away the family car or worse? When he died, it was more of a relief than anything but Minnie was burned out. I could see immediately that Minnie was one of life’s ‘copers’. She’s used to picking up the pieces of whatever disaster her family members bring home, always without complaint and assuring them it will be ok. Holding the anxiety and responsibility for everyone creates burn out and resentment. When is it someone else’s turn to hold it together? She just wants one opportunity to fall apart. So when the big incident happened Minnie decided this was one mess she would not be clearing up. The fall out from this decision will last twenty years, compounded by miscommunication, layers of regret and grief, and the blame never apportioned out loud.
When trauma isn’t processed and discussed it grows and can come out in the most unexpected ways. Like on Christmas Day, when at least three generations of the family bring the trauma into the present. I loved how the author brought all those strands together to create this tension filled and momentous day. There’s all the usual stuff; prepping the veg, opening the presents and playing games. Between the celebrations, we’re told parts of the story by those who were there and those who are living in the aftermath. Even the grandchildren are affected, because things that are never spoken about can be misunderstood and blown out of proportion. The sections become shorter and faster towards the end, driving then tension and compelling you to keep reading. This is a brilliant, emotional and addictive read that’s a must read for this spring and would make a great TV thriller.
Published by HQ 30th March 2023
Meet the Author
Sarah lives in Northumberland, England, with her family. She teaches creative writing at Lincoln University. During the Covid pandemic, she was unable to write because her children kept interrupting her, so she started baking instead. She now spends her time writing, teaching, hanging out with her kids, baking fine patisserie and trying to believe her luck.
I’m continuing my series with Rachel Kelly’s collection of poetry for each season of the year. Today I want to share with you another poem from ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ because it speaks to me about being authentic and I know how liberating that can be.
Wild Gees by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
Are moving across the landscapes,
Over the prairies and the deep trees,
The mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
Are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
Over and over, announcing your place,
In the family of things.
In You’ll Never Walk Alone – Poems for Life’s Ups and Downs. Ed. Rachel Kelly. Yellow Kite. November 2022.
I love that we come to this poem in the middle of a conversation. Editor Rachel Kelly suggests that it might feel odd at first, to hear this voice telling us we do not have to be good – a lesson we are taught from being a small child. In order to be loved these days we are told we must be good, but also to behave in certain ways and look a particular way. We must have no body hair, thick lustrous hair on our head, the perfect figure and whitened teeth. But this poem says no, a goose only has to be a goose, the natural way a goose is meant to be. It follows it’s inner instincts, to fly to warmer climates in winter and back home in the spring. It isn’t trying to be something it’s not. It is unapologetically itself.
At this time of year I can go out with a cuppa into the garden and I identify the different clumps of leaves, what will become the aquilegias, daffodils, tulips and even foxgloves. Every year they are in the same place in the garden and will bloom at their set time, bringing bursts of scent and beautiful colour into my world. Even when I’m struggling with pain and I can’t walk far, I can get into my garden and enjoy my flowers. The consistency of their blooming brings me so much hope: of warmer days coming, having the doors and windows open, reclining in my garden chair with a good book – usually with a cat or two in my lap. When I did an authentic self workshop this was one of the activities when I felt most like my true self, just being outdoors with my animals and enjoying a good book. Nature is the backdrop to this and is grounding in a way. ‘The natural world unfolds anyway’, Kelly tells us not because it was told it must or should be a certain way. She goes on to talk about the metaphor of the geese, flying freely, following their instincts and but also being part of something bigger. It’s a powerful message, that we have a place in nature and can return to it any time for sustenance and to quieten that constant noise we’re bombarded with.
To listen to your inner self I ask clients to get out a notebook and write down the times in life when they’re at their most comfortable with themselves. ‘When you’re not questioning how to be or whether you’re wearing the right thing. When you feel totally in tune with what you’re doing and in the present moment’. This will be different for everyone but my first list was:
When I’m with my dog walking on the beach or in a forest
When I’m at a concert, caught up with the singing and the crowd
Sitting in the garden with a good book and my cats with me
At the theatre watching a ballet or a compelling play
From that I could pick up certain patterns, such as I like quiet or activities where people aren’t expecting conversation. I like solitary activities or being in a crowd that’s in tune with each other. I like to observe more than participate or perform. I find animals and nature soothing. This meant I could lean more towards activities that felt natural rather than activities that made me anxious or feel out of place. I will look back to this poem from time to time and probably use it in sessions, because it does remind us to take time in nature but mainly to stop trying to be what others tell us we should be. Be who you are and love what you love.
The first thing I have to say is ‘Wow! What an opening.’ I read the first page then went to find my other half so I could read it to him. He’s one of those people who say ‘just chuck me in a bin bag’ so I thought he’d love it too. Of course it’s horrifying, but I also found it blackly comic and with Irish ancestors myself I can honestly say it’s an Irish trait. We laugh at the story of Mother – my great-grandmother – putting her head in the oven and wondering why it was taking too long. Slowly realising it was an electric oven. Tragic, horrifying, but hilarious at the same time. I felt this all the way through the story of Sally Diamond, a young woman having to negotiate a new life after the death of her incredibly protective father. He was an academic doctor and it turns out Sally was his subject. He leaves Sally letters to read after his death to give her all the information about what to do next. However, Sally can be very literal and by carrying out his verbal wishes to be in a bin bag, it turns out she may have committed a crime. Luckily family friend and GP Angela comes to the rescue, explaining to the police that Sally is ‘different’ she’s been sheltered and her childhood before her adoption was very traumatic. In fact her father left specific instructions in his letters, but as Sally points out he should have labelled the envelope ‘open this as soon as I’ve died’. Sally learns that she was born in terrible circumstances and it’s only chance that saved her. How will Sally cope with the detailed news about her past and how will she integrate into the community and learn how to manage by herself?
I found Sally rather endearing, despite her tendency to ask personal questions and disappearing to play the piano when things get too much. Sally knows that her mother died, in fact she committed suicide after their escape. Sally was born Mary Norton, in a locked extension attached to the home of Connor Geary and his son. Sally’s mother was abducted by Geary and brought back to the specially built annex where he chained her to the radiator. Denise Norton was subjected to all forms of abuse and violence and gave birth to her daughter in captivity. They were only found when a burglar broke into the house and Denise shouted to him ‘I am Denise Norton’ over and over, in the hope he’d tell the authorities. Sally doesn’t remember anything about her earliest years, but when she’s sent a grubby, old teddy in the post she knows instinctively that he’s hers. Sally was adopted by the husband and wife psychologist team who were treating her and her mother after they left hospital. After a short space of time, it became clear that Denise would not recover well and it was decided that in order for her to develop, Mary must be removed from her mother. Tragically, as soon as this happened, Denise committed suicide. Ever since, and with the new name Sally, she has lived an isolated rural life in Ireland. Sally has her quirks: she asks deeply personal questions; she would tear out her hair if upset; she could be extremely violent. As we followed Sally’s journey it started to feel really uplifting and I was so happy for her, finding the ability to live a fuller life would be a real happy ending to the story.
Then the book changes and we’re listening to a boy called Peter from New Zealand, having emigrated from Ireland. I found Peter’s father terrifying, he is a misogynist and incredibly controlling to the extent of telling his son he has a rare disease that means he can’t touch other people. This lie will have terrible consequences, when Peter tries to make connections with others. Slowly a terrifying story emerges about their home in Ireland and the ghost who lived through the wall. Sometimes he’d hear the shrieks and moans from that room. When Peter was left to be looked after by the ghost, something terrible happened and the trauma has stayed with him for life. I felt so moved by Peter’s story, but terrified by what he could become. I felt as if the loss of his friend Rangi that was the turning point. Peter can also be extremely violent and even though he is assailed by guilt afterwards, the damage is done. I hoped and hoped for a point of redemption for him. When his father starts to build a barn and look for another victim he has no choice but to be complicit. If something happened to his father, would he able to come clean and let them victim go? Does he ever wonder about what happened to his mother’s family in Ireland?
I was hoping that these two damaged people would get to meet each other. Both of them need family and a sense of where they’re from, even when the truth is awful to comprehend. The author has such a talent for playing with the reader’s emotions, letting us feel for a character then finding out they’ve done something terrible or making us feel sorry for a character we dislike, because of something they’ve experienced. Her characters are always complicated and flawed, but this was the next level. I loved watching Sally start to thrive with the support of those around her. She uses the money she inherits to renovate a cottage closer to the village. She starts to build relationships with her dad’s sister Aunt Christine and her Uncle Mark too. The high point is a lovely party at Sally’s cottage with a bouncy castle for the kids, which she is even persuaded to try herself. Then a stranger from New Zealand turns up at her door and I was riveted to the story from then on to see how this will affect Sally. Can two damaged people console and support each other, or will they drag each other down? We are about to witness the difference of growing up on opposite sides of the wall. This was a fascinating novel, especially if you love psychological thrillers and studying how someone’s start in life contributes to the person they are. I was also fascinated with the idea that those who heal can also hurt. When your adopted child is also your subject, your academic reputation and possibly even your funding, lines become blurred. I desperately wanted a happy ending for Sally because she’d made so much progress but can so much trauma ever be left behind? The author created a character that I was so emotionally invested in, she will definitely stay with me. She’s so complex and nuanced that she felt completely real to me. The book is incredible and is up there with my top reads of this year, it’s one of those that will keep coming back to me until eventually I grab it from the shelf and read it again.
Meet the Author
Liz was born in Dublin in 1967, where she now lives. She has written successfully for soap opera, radio drama, television plays, short stories and animation for children.
Liz’s first novel Unravelling Oliver was published to critical and popular acclaim in March 2014. It quickly became a firm favourite with book clubs and reader’s groups. In November of that year, it went on to win the Ireland AM Crime Novel of the Year at the Bord Gais Energy Book Awards and was long listed for the International Dublin Literature Prize 2016. She was also the winner of the inaugural Jack Harte Bursary provided by the Irish Writers Centre and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Dec 2014. Her second novel, Lying in Wait, was published in July 2016 and went straight to number 1 where it remained for seven weeks. Liz won the Monaco Bursary from the Ireland Funds and was Writer in Residence at the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco in Sept/Oct 2016. In Nov 2016, Lying in Wait won the prestigious RTE Ryan Tubridy Listener’s Choice prize at the Irish Book Awards.
Aside from writing, Liz has led workshops in writing drama for broadcast, she has produced and managed literary salons and curated literary strands of Arts Festivals. She regularly does public interviews and panel discussions on all aspects of her writing.
It was only yesterday on the blog that I was welcoming spring by talking about a book of poetry aimed at helping people with their mental health. Nature was one of the main ways we could boost our well-being, so it seems very fitting that I was also reading this beautiful memoir by Anna Vaught where she shares her very personal mental health journey and how nature became her best coping mechanism from a very young age. The book is made up of a series of essays, each one beginning with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature including the book’s title.
If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty and light the universe with their admonishing smile.
Ralph Waldo Emerson. From Nature, Chapter One.
His words bring a sense of wonder to the natural world, and if kept and nurtured, that sense of almost childlike wonder is an amazing antidote to the hurried and stressful way of life we now have. In fact if we still have that ability to stop and be with the natural world around us, it becomes a time out of time. We come out of those moments and back to reality amazed at how much time has passed and how everything else in life receded and allowed us that enjoyment. As some of my bookish friends know, I have recently been struggling with my mood due to the frustration of having a multiple sclerosis relapse. While I am in pain and battling fatigue, my very busy brain is desperate to carry on writing my book. Basically my body can’t keep up with the breadth of my imagination and the desire to put it down on paper. Yesterday, we drove to our local farm shop and on the way home we passed a field that’s had a winter crop harvested and is only just growing a short covering of grass. From a distance away I suddenly saw two young hares – my favourite animal – chasing each other, weaving and winding around each other at speed then every so often stopping to stand on their hind legs and attempt to box. We pulled over and for a short while we lost ourselves watching these mystical creatures performing the rituals of their ancestors. My partner commented on how my face lit up while watching them, possibly because one of my earliest memories involves a leveret found by my dad that I was able to hold in my palm. I remember the softness of it’s fur, the cartilage of it’s ears and the way the light shone through the pink inside of the ear to show blood vessels coursing their way through.
Like Anna Vaught’s family we were rural working class, with my father either a farm labour or working in land drainage – a very important role in Lincolnshire where the 14th Century system of dykes designed by Vermuyden still keeps the county’s land drained for farming. As children, my brother and I would leave the house in the morning and not return till late afternoon. Vaught’s description of her childhood reminded me of those days where we would lie and read in trees, suck the nectar from sweet nettle flowers and watch the wildlife. I was obsessed with the Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, so while my brother was fishing I’d do botanical sketches of foxgloves, campions and cow parsley. These countryside hours feel idyllic, but the truth was my mum struggled with untreated depression till I was a teenager. Since then my brother and I have both had our own bouts of depression, but thanks to better treatments and to my training in mental health I had the skills to know what was happening and ask for help. I have also developed my own toolbox for days when my mental health and physical health are having a battle with each other. Like the author, spending time in nature is definitely a large part of that. I truly bonded with this incredible, honest and moving book and was profoundly moved by the author’s decision to share her more painful life experiences. This is partly why my response is also very personal.
The author bases each chapter on a plan, such as Rosebay Willowherb or lichen and moss. She writes about the wonder of each living thing, but it’s also a kicking off point for her own memories and feelings at the time. She writes a deeply moving section in the first chapter where she admits that she was reciting the Latin names of plants in her head to calm herself and try to get to sleep. She told many different adults – the dinner lady, the teacher, the vicar – that she felt compelled to say them out loud ‘so as not to make the dreadful thing happen’ possibly the emergence of OCD. These little glimpses of the child Anna show how lost and unsafe she felt with her parents:
If, as a child you are surrounded by a sort of passionate morbidity, by a frightening psychiatric incident in the family – which is frightening because it is spoken of behind closed doors and euphemism – it may be that you need to latch on to things around you which provide stability and reassurance. Much of this was in the natural world for me.
Vaught is open, raw and deeply moving in the sections where she writes about her childhood experience and it is worth mentioning that the book contains childhood mental illness, emotional abuse, suicide, depression and anxiety. She places her own warning for these subjects at the beginning of the book so I felt they were worth mentioning here. It is emotionally devastating to read someone crying out for help, but receiving nothing from the people expected to care for her most. She describes feeling dissociated, cut off from the world and the people in it as if she was living behind a sheet of glass. She writes quite bluntly that her parents did not talk about it or try to help her. Her mother’s view was the depressed people were indulging themselves. Teenage moods and PMS were imaginary and people who professed to be mentally I’ll had ‘failed to control themselves.’ I felt this in my core. To be so dismissed and gaslighted to this extent in your own family must be devastating to self – esteem and leaves you questioning and testing yourself permanently. She writes that she felt, not just unwanted, but a malevolent creature that might easily do someone harm, an idea that meant making friends and keeping relationships with extended family was quite difficult. It was also instilled in her that it wasn’t just her mum, that other family members and visiting friends had notice she was different too. Her father was distant, but when she was allowed to go out with him she felt chosen and would chatter away to him, probably making up for lost time, until he would snap and tell her to be quiet. On one occasion telling her that they preferred to spend their time with their ‘Number One Son because he listens and likes to be with us, and he never says a word. And you should know you are here under sufferance.’ How crushing must it have been to hear that, especially with her mother so angry with her, something she can only say now after years of therapy.
However, this is far from a misery memoir. I would say it is a story of resilience, of finding the things that boost it and removing from your life those things that crush your spirit. She provides possible mindful exercises that might calm and lists the places she finds most inspiring to visit and experience nature. She signposts the reader to other books that might give you coping mechanisms, while being mindful there is no one size fits all approach because we are all very different. One thing that caught my eye was something I have taught to my groups with chronic ill health and pain; that even in the depths of depression we must be mindful without our bodies and our emotions. We must observe how depression is making us feel both physically and emotionally. What is it about the weeks leading up to this bout of illness that you notice? Were you under stress at work? Were there financial pressures? Were you worried about someone else in your life? Then also make notes on what you did during the worst weeks that made you feel okay? Which strategies brought calm when your mind was spiralling with anxiety? Which people were the best to have around and vice versa? So in this way, a bout of depression or mental ill health has taught us something – what are the best ways to live that might help boost our resilience in the future? As with illnesses like MS, M.E. and various types of chronic pain, stress does worsen symptoms. Using these personal strategies may not totally remove the mental or physical ill health, in fact we may live our lives in seasons ( I always know I will have a short relapse in spring and another in the autumn) but we can be resilient, we can keep in mind that despite being in the depths of winter we can always come out the other side. This is one of the main lessons that the author has always taken from nature, it’s ability to heal itself and come back in the spring. We have faith that at this time of year, plants will start pushing through and now the hellebores and snowdrops of late winter are giving way to tulips, daffodils and bluebells. We plant our brown, unpromising bulbs in the late autumn into cold soil with complete faith they will push through and bring us joy, just when the winter has seemed so long.
If you can cope with the internal winter of depression then depression can be your friend’.
Not that we would wish depression on anyone, but that it can be a learning experience. It can teach us how to manage the next time it recurs and realise that even a life with limits has richness. This is something I’ve taken on board while reading and it started me off writing a short journal piece about what my bouts of MS can teach me and again it’s resilience. That just as it’s sure to happen again, I can also be sure that it will pass. I can use it to rest, to read and scribble notes, perhaps even to read solely for pleasure. My relapses are simply my body’s winter. To finish I loved her reference to Wilson A. Bentley who lived in Vermont and gave a great deal of his life to studying snowflakes, a natural phenomenon that’s so transient, simply melting away as though it never existed. Bentley felt they were a reminder of how transient earthly beauty can be, but that rather than rendering his study of them pointless, it made it more special because:
‘In the ephemeral nature of phenomena, however, he also found comfort, because while the beauty of the snow was evanescent, like the seasons or the stars he saw in the evening sky, it would fade but always come again.’
Introduction, The Envoys of Beauty.
Meet the Author.
Anna Vaught is an English teacher, mentor and author of several books, including 2020’s Saving Lucia. She has also written a short story collection, Famished. She is currently a columnist for MsLexia and has written regularly for The Bookseller. Anna’s second short fiction collection Ravished was published by Reflex Press in 2022 and 2023 will see five books including this one published across Europe. She volunteers with young people and is founder of the Curae prize for writer-carers and edits it’s journal. She works alongside chronic illness and is a passionate campaigner for mental health provision. Anna is published by Reflex Press and is currently working on another novel.
When I was offered this book of poetry to review I wanted to do more than just a basic review. This is the sort of book I would use when working with clients and the collection has been gathered with writing therapy in mind. For me spring is the perfect time to start working with clients, because it’s naturally a time of growth and change. It’s a much more natural time to make life changes or start to challenge ourselves rather than the dead of winter. Our moods tend to lift and we want to be outside enjoying the milder weather. So over the next few Sundays I’m going to use this book to show how I work with clients and some exercises you might want to try. Firstly, I’m going to write about how I felt about the collection and how it’s been framed by the editor and then look at how we respond to poetry.
This is a fantastic collection of poetry, cleverly sectioned into seasons and the emotions those seasons might inspire in us. Alongside her chosen poems are illustrations and a thoughtful reflection on how each poem has come to mean so much both to the author and to years of readers. As Kelly starts off in her introduction, ‘words can be a way to make sense of our feelings’ and I would definitely back that up from the writing workshops I’ve held. Even when we can’t find our own words, reading someone else’s can light a spark of recognition in us. Not only does it help identify feelings, it shows us that someone else has felt how we do, We are not alone. This is where this book excels, it’s a companion. It would be a great bedside table book, then if we wake in the night feeling sad or anxious we can flick through and find someone who expresses exactly how we’re feeling. It’s good to keep a notebook to hand as well, to jot down your responses. The book also excels in the way it’s laid out, split into seasons of the year. There are specific emotions that we attach to the seasons and with it being early spring I noted how hopeful spring poems are. They signify beginnings, new growth, the banishing of winter and hopefulness. As growth appears in the garden, we hear the new dawn chorus or smell a hyacinth, it can’t fail to raise our spirits. So the seasons in the book can follow the emotional seasons we experience – for example, we can sink into hibernation when feeling low or depressed. The poetry chosen really does suit it’s season well. As a writing therapist I can see how I could use this book when designing short courses on identifying feelings, beginnings and endings, how to use poetry to boost your well-being and so much more. As a reader I think it’s a great collection, beautifully illustrated and a fantastic bedside book to dip in and out of from time to time when you need support.
Response To Poetry
One of the most astonishing things about working with words is that the simplest things work. I sometimes felt, early on in my practice, that I wasn’t writing nearly enough for a session. With experience I learned that just doing a couple of exercises – a check-in, warm up write, then a longer piece – is more than enough. You have to factor in feedback time and sometimes that can take longer than the writing itself. It’s vitally important, because not only does it help the participants process what they’ve written, it bonds the group together and lets that person feel safe and listened too. Putting something down on paper then sharing it aloud is a double process where we get to see it in black and white, then say it, releasing it into the world instead of keeping it hidden inside. Either or both can unleash incredible and unexpected emotions.
Responses to poetry are a simple and powerful way for a group to get to know each other and share where we are in our life journey. Spring poems are great for this opening moment because spring is a season full of the things we might identify with – beginnings, trepidation, light, promise, hope and relief. We might be putting down a heavy burden, perhaps for the first time, so we feel lighter, we’re letting sunshine in and we’re trusting things might get better. We might be skeptical, stunned by the sherbet lemon yellow in a clump of unexpected daffodils, yet reminding ourselves there might be frosts to come. It also sounds so easy doesn’t it? So we write down how we feel and miraculously feel better? The answer is yes, it’s a process of course, but I’ve never had a participant feel substantially worse.
So, the idea is to pick up an anthology of poetry like this one or search online for poems about spring, then simply flick through until something grabs your attention. Read it through a few times then make some notes. Ask yourself a few questions about the poem, here are a few ideas:
Note down any words or phrases that jump out at you. Is it the meaning of the words or their sound that grab you? What images jump out in your head? Does the poem conjure up pictures of people or particular memories and what’s their significance? Do any words lift your spirit and which ones? What meanings come to mind for the poem’s imagery or for the poem as a whole?
I did this for my favourite poem that evokes spring and is included in Rachel Kelly’s collection. Emily Dickinson’s ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’ is so meaningful to me that I had it turned into a decal for my bedroom wall. It was the first thing I saw when I woke up in the morning, alongside some carved wooden wings.
Hope is the thing with feathers/ that perches in the soul/ and sings the tune without the words/ and never stops at all.
This is so meaningful to me because when I first moved into the house I’d gone through the hardest years of my life. My husband had died from complications due to multiple sclerosis. A while later I’d met up with someone I’d known a long time before, when I was a teenager. We had a whirlwind relationship and married about two years after my husband died. What followed was two years of confusion, emotional pain, self-loathing and feeling like I was going mad. It took two different periods of counselling and re-education to realise I’d married an abuser. Someone who enjoyed dragging women down, eroding their confidence and telling them something was wrong with them. It took a terrible betrayal for me to leave, because if I’d stayed he would have succeeded in taking me away from my closest family members. I have no doubt the abuse would have worsened had I stayed. So I started a period of self- healing and it was hard, because I had a distorted sense of who I was, how I looked and my own worth. I thought that waking up to that poem every morning would help, would lift my mood and give me that grain of hope. It gave me that lift in mood, experienced when we hear the dawn chorus in spring. I also felt held safely by the promise that the bird’s song will never stop. That even when I was depleted and depressed, the bird would keep singing for me. Hope will always come, just like spring always follows winter. I have a tattoo on my back of a birdcage with an open door and the bird flying off into the distance. It represents this time too and my eventual ability to fly and sing for myself.
Meet The Author
Rachel Kelly began her career as a journalist at The Times. She is the author of four books covering her experience of depression, recovery and her steps to wellbeing. Rachel writes for the press, gives interviews and public talks sharing her motivational and holistic approach to good mental health. Her memoir ‘Black Rainbow: How words healed me: my journey through depression’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) on the healing power of the written word was a Sunday Times bestseller and won the Best First Book prize at the Spear’s Book Awards. All author proceeds from the book were donated to mental health charities – Rachel is an ambassador for SANE, Rethink and The Counselling Foundation and campaigns to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. ‘Black Rainbow’ is published in Sweden and the USA and in 2020 it will be published by Larousse in France. She has also written about the holistic approach which helped her recover – her second book, ‘Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness’ (Short Books, 2015) is an international bestseller and has been published in Canada, Croatia, Germany, Poland, Turkey, the USA, Korea and China. In 2016, Rachel co-wrote ‘The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food’ (Short Books, 2017) with the nutritionist Alice Mackintosh, a happiness-focused cookbook which offers over sixty recipes that promote mental wellbeing. ‘The Happy Kitchen’ has been published in the USA and Canada. Her latest publication is titled ‘Singing in the Rain: An inspirational workbook – 52 Practical Steps to Happiness’ published by Short Books in January 2019.
It has been my honour to meet this incredible writer and lovely lady on more than one occasion. The one that really stays with me is her visit to Lindum Books in Lincoln, at a time when caring responsibilities really cut into my ability to have a normal life. Having waited some time for a late carer to arrive I telephoned the book shop to enquire whether Rachel was still there. I was told she would be leaving in a few moments, so I explained what had happened and said I’d rush to get there. When I arrived, she was sat holding her coat and bag, clearly ready to leave, but she had waited for me to arrive because she didn’t want me to miss out. She signed my book and my friend’s book too, chatted about her writing and never showed impatience or a need to rush. I absolutely treasured that thirty minutes, because it showed such kindness and respect for her reader, but also because it was something I managed to do that was just about me. It was about me as a person and something I loved, nothing to do with my caring role. When meeting the NHS or social services about my husband and his care, I often felt overlooked and under appreciated by the powers that be and my personal needs didn’t matter. I often felt that I had lost myself and the things I enjoyed, so this moment mattered and showed an understanding that can be seen in her writing of this trilogy. The latest, Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North, was published late last year and it seems a perfect time to look back on these characters.
The first in the series, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry came out in paperback in 2013. Harold Fry is a retired gentleman living quietly with his wife Maureen. One morning he pops out to post a letter, with no idea he is about to walk the length of the country. If it had entered his head he might have left with better clothing and something more robust than canvas shoes. We know nothing about Harold when he starts his journey, an idea that pops into his brain during a conversation at a petrol station in the time it takes for the microwave to heat a burger. Rachel trusts her reader and her story, she knows the reader will want to read on, to know more about this man and what has happened in his life to create his need to walk. We begin to understand that what looks to outsiders like a ‘little life’ hides a torrent of emotion and experiences, because as Harold walks and runs he processes his life choices and the feelings that have been building up under the surface. We see his memories of meeting Maureen, set against her current, curtained off, attitude to Harold and to life. His difficult relationship with his son David. The closest friend he has ever had. All of this beautiful, painful and un-examined emotion comes out as Harold walks and his canvas shoes fray. We also get to enjoy his outer world, the people he meets and the kindnesses afforded to him on his journey. We gradually get the context of the letter Harold was replying to, a letter from that closest friend, Queenie Hennessy. Queenie was there for Harold when he most needed someone, but twenty years have passed and she is in a hospice in Berwick-Upon- Tweed in her final weeks. So, Harold’s pilgrimage is towards Queenie. He thinks that as long as he keeps walking and running, Queenie will wait for him.
Rachel is telling us to look beyond the surface for the context of things, starting with the assumption that Maureen and Harold are a settled old married couple with little more going on than their housework routine and fetching the paper every morning. Both are people, with a lifetime’s worth of events, emotions, gains and losses, just like you or me. Elderly people don’t cease to have ups and downs and their marriage, once we know what they have faced, is miraculously intact but still needs tending. I was desperately hoping that Harold’s pilgrimage and some time with Queenie might restore their connection in some way and bring Maureen from behind her barricades. That the further apart they become on the map, the closer they can become emotionally. We are taken through a changing landscape too, noticing nature and seasonal change as well as the sheer beauty of the country we live in without being twee or whimsical. Harold’s journey is a reminder that we can get up and change things, we can renew our relationships with others and ourselves and we can find meaning between the lines. Rachel Joyce reminds us that, if we choose to look, there is always something extraordinary in the every day.
For even more context, Rachel then takes us into the life of Queenie Hennessy – moving her from the sidelines as part of Harold’s story, to the centre of her own intersecting narrative. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is my favourite in the series, because it shows how someone can seem to have such a small part in your life, while you can be at the absolute centre of theirs. I also love how Queenie’s story unfolds, as she learns that Harold is making his way up the country on foot towards her, she doesn’t know whether she can hang on for him to arrive. When she confides in one of the hospice volunteers, she comes up with a brilliant suggestion and one that makes so much sense from this writing therapist’s perspective. To alleviate her anxiety and be sure that Harold knows the whole story, the volunteer suggests she writes to him. Not like the first letter, these letters should be honest and atone for the past in a way she hasn’t done for twenty years. So, from her hospice bed, Queenie makes a journey into the past with Sister Mary Inconnue at the keyboard. She admits to her love for Harold, a love given freely and without reward for decades. She tells him of her friendship with his son David and how she tried to help him. She tells him about her cottage and the beloved garden she has created by the sea and its meaning to her and those who visit. Again, the author takes us into an experience we could see as depressing and final, but is actually a beginning that’s both vital and life affirming. Harold’s impending visit and her letter rich with memories and context that may help both Harold and Maureen, allow Queenie to live while dying and create even more meaning to her life.
The final part of this trilogy seems like such a slight novel, when it arrived from the publisher I thought I’d been sent an extract rather than the full book. However, it packs a hefty emotional punch and brought a lump to my throat as we explored Maureen Fry’s inner world and her need for healing as a mother. In Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North, it is time for Maureen to take her own pilgrimage, ten years after her husband’s famous 600 mile journey. Again it’s a letter that sparks the change, a postcard from Kate who helped Harold on his journey telling them about Queenie’s garden which has become the Garden of Relics in Embleton Bay, Northumberland. Kate said there was a monument there that Queenie had built for their son David and this niggled away at Maureen as the months passed. Lots of questions and emotions started to buzz around her head: why had Queenie built this monument? Who gave her the right to do that? Why hadn’t Harold known about the friendship between Queenie and David? When she looked up the garden on the internet, Maureen found lots of people who had visited and enjoyed it enough to comment. Why had they seen this monument to David when she hadn’t? She felt angry and displaced somehow. After a terrible nightmare, where she found David lost and alone in the earth, Harold suggests that perhaps Maureen needs to see this garden for herself? She could see Kate and visit with her. Maureen knows that Harold cares about Kate and that she was kind to him on his journey. She’s some sort of activist and Maureen can’t imagine what she would say to someone like that. They wouldn’t get along.
When Maureen resolves to drive up to Northumberland and see the garden, she prepares for her journey in complete contrast to Harold. It shows the differences in their character and as she packs her sandwiches and her thermos flask I realised that Maureen believes everything can be prepared for and organised. This is why those unexpected side swipes that life deals out from time to time have affected her so badly. She tries to work them out, questions what she could have done differently and potentially blames herself. She learns very quickly, as roadworks take her off the A38 and she’s completely lost, that you can’t prepare for everything and sometimes you have to rely on the kindness of strangers. A lesson that’s repeated until Maureen simply has to give in and be wholly dependent on someone else, perhaps the last person she expected. These experiences open her up to the world in a way she hasn’t before. I won’t reveal what Maureen finds in the garden, but I felt it could be taken two different ways. Before her journey there was a void at her centre that she believed could never be filled and she held it close as a symbol of all she had lost. My hope was that after the journey that void would be become an opening, creating room for all the people she could let in. That’s the thing with Rachel Joyce’s writing, it may seem whimsical, charming and light, but it isn’t. While it might not be dramatic, it deals with the biggest themes in life; growing old, love, identity, birth, death, friendship and personal growth. To borrow that phrase again from Shirley Valentine, these are not ordinary ‘little lives’, they are extraordinary.
Meet The Author
Rachel Joyce is the author of the Sunday Times and international bestsellers The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Perfect, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, The Music Shop, and the New York Times bestseller Miss Benson’s Beetle, as well as a collection of interlinked short stories, A Snow Garden & Other Stories. Her books have sold over 5 million copies worldwide, and been translated into thirty-six languages. Two are currently in development for film.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book prize and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Rachel was awarded the Specsavers National Book Awards ‘New Writer of the Year’ in December 2012 and shortlisted for the ‘UK Author of the Year’ 2014.
Rachel has also written over twenty original afternoon plays and adaptations of the classics for BBC Radio 4, including all the Bronte novels. She lives with her family near Stroud.
Wendy is lonely but coping. All nineteen-year-old Wendy wants is to drive the 255 bus around Uddingston with her regulars on board, remember to buy milk when it runs out and just to be okay. After her mum died, there’s nobody to remind her to eat and what to do each day. And Wendy is ready to step out of her comfort zone. Each week she shows her social worker the progress she’s made, like the coasters she bought to spruce up the place, even if she forgets to make tea. And she even joins a writers’ group to share the stories she writes, like the one about a bullied boy who goes to Mars.
But everything changes when Wendy meets Ginger. A teenager with flaming orange hair, Ginger’s so brave she’s wearing a coat that isn’t even waterproof. For the first time, Wendy has a real best friend. But as they begin the summer of their lives, Wendy wonders if things were simpler before. And that’s before she realizes just how much trouble Ginger is about to get them in…
I’ve worked for 25 years in mental health and one thing I’ve learned is that there are almost always reasons people behave the way they do, but also that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ life. I love books that relate the extraordinary lives of ordinary people and Wendy certainly lives a simple life. She’s happy driving the 255 bus through Uddingston, reading books and having a good go at writing her own. Concerned that her social worker thinks she’s stagnating a little, since the death of her mother, Wendy makes a decision to reach out. She joins a writing group to build her confidence and starts to make friends with some of her passengers, but then Ginger comes along. Ginger is going to push Wendy completely out of her comfort zone.
This is a great novel that shows how mental health issues can creep up on young girls and when they’re as alone as Wendy is, there’s no one to notice things going wrong. Life is hard for her, because she feels like she doesn’t fit anywhere. She can see that society has rules, but she doesn’t understand them and her ignorance of the rules means she’s socially awkward. Instead of upsetting others, it sometimes seems easier to withdraw altogether. There is a sense in which Wendy’s being failed by the system, plus the double bereavement of losing her mum and dad has left her especially vulnerable. Being stepmum to two teenage girls I know only too well how problems can suddenly escalate and be made worse by social media. This is a gritty story and I knew very early on that something bad has happened to Wendy, so I did have a certain amount of suspicion most of the time. It felt to me like Wendy was heading down a dark road, but the addition of the rather wild Ginger seems to accelerate the downfall. I felt immediately protective of this girl, because it felt like she was out in the world with a layer of skin missing. I wanted to give her a big hug and have a heart to heart over a mug of tea. I found myself thinking about her long after the book finished, so bravo to the author for creating such an incredible character in her debut novel.
I have loved the characters of Cormoran Strike and his business partner Robin Ellacott for a long time, after seeing one of Robert Galbraith’s books in a charity shop and deciding to give it a go. I’ve bought every book in the series since and Strike has become one of my literary crushes – the troubled, wounded, war hero with a rescuer complex and rugged good looks is right up my street. Then there’s Robin, the country girl from Yorkshire who has bags of Northern common sense and is also brave, intelligent and caring. Their friendship works due to respect; he respects her intelligence and investigative abilities, whereas she respects his experience and never pushes beyond his boundaries. Their ‘will they/won’t they’ romance has had me on tenterhooks. I had heard this might be their last outing, so I was expecting their relationship to be resolved in some way. I also expected the main case to grab me immediately, just as their previous investigations did. This combination that has always kept the Strike books instantly readable, no matter if they do weigh the same as a house brick. The leading character’s issues aside, the cases have always been complex and multi-layered, with enough drama to keep me on the edge of my seat as I move towards the conclusion.
This time the agency is delving into two different worlds – the art world and the world of online gaming. Edie Ledwell and Josh Blay are artists who met while training and created a cult cartoon called The Ink Black Heart, set in Highfield Cemetery and peopled by odd little characters such as a talking human heart and a pale wispy ghost. The fans of this cartoon are real super fans, with two of them creating an online game for players to create a character and complete challenges around the graveyard. There was also a facility to meet other fans and talk on private channels during the game. However, fame is never straightforward and when Edie and Josh are found in Highfield Cemetery, attacked with a knife, rumours abound. With Edie dead at the scene and Josh paralysed in hospital, Strike and Robin are tasked to find out who had a grudge against the pair. Edie particularly, was bombarded with online abuse from misogynistic trolls, but it’s a character from the online game that Robin and Strike need to unmask. Anomie is a cloaked, faceless character, j one of the moderators and possibly even the creator of the game. The question is, how do they find someone, whose presence in the real and virtual world is a mystery?
It felt to me as if Robin really stepped up in this novel and took the primary role. Strike struggles physically this time, because years of not looking after himself have started to take their toll. His stump becomes inflamed and unable to take his prosthetic leg or bear his weight. Despite this Strike continues as long as he can, until even he has to accept medical help and enforced rest. So Robin’s detective skills come to the fore, as she infiltrates the art centre and commune, as well as the online game. I really enjoyed her undercover work on this case, firstly becoming Jessica a young woman who works in marketing and finance, but always wanted to explore her artistic side. She signs up to an art class at the centre to improve her skills and meet those who rubbed shoulders with Edie and Josh. She then visits comic-con as a journalist to interview someone they believe is very active in the game – Strike’s disguise amused me greatly here. I’ve always enjoyed Robin’s inner world and here I loved how much confidence her investigative role gives her. Her personal life has given her confidence a battering, especially now that her husband and the woman he was cheating with have a baby together. She has avoided her home town for a while, knowing they’ll be parading their offspring. Robin has worked out that it was the rape she went through at university that led to her settling with ex-husband Matthew. He was there and knew what had happened, it was infinitely easier than having to share this part of her past with someone new.Her feelings for Strike became more obvious when he turned up at her wedding and she left the celebrations to speak to him, much to husband Matthew’s disgust.
Strike is her best friend and she doesn’t want to lose that, but in this story other concerns also come to the fore. She feels inexperienced and unsophisticated in comparison to other woman she has seen with Strike, such as his ex-girlfriend Charlotte and his current girl Madeleine. Robin has no idea how beautiful she is, but Strike is very aware of the effect she has on men when she enters a room. What she doesn’t know is that Strike is currently comparing her with Madeleine, and his girlfriend is not doing well by comparison. Madeleine is well-groomed and always fully made up, plus she’s part of the same sophisticated London set as Charlotte. Strike has noticed the clean smell of Robin’s just washed hair and admires her simplicity. There are no games with Robin, she is always honest and says what she feels. Yet when Strike does weaken and try to kiss her when they go for birthday drinks, she looks so surprised that he interprets it as revulsion, but I think it’s fear. They are both frustrating, but the tension has to continue. The alternative is unthinkable, because people of my vintage remember Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd in Moonlighting and the disaster it became when their characters consummated years of flirting. If Strike and Robin ever did get together, I have no doubt it would have to be the end of the series.
It was within the case that I started to have some issues with the book. This is a long novel and the case concerned a wide range of people both real and virtual. Trying to remember where each character fit in the story was one thing, but when I realised they were possibly in the game with a user name too, it became much more complicated. I found it hard to follow the clues that pointed towards who Anomie was. There were also long sections written in private channels within the game. This felt awkward, although it wasn’t so bad when just two people were chatting, it became impenetrable to me when several channels were open at once with the same characters talking to different people at the same time. Although it gave an insight into how these characters communicated and talked behind each other’s backs, it was hard to keep track. The issues of misogyny and trolling felt like they’d come from the writer’s personal life and the type of trolling she’s been experiencing lately. Studies show that women who game online are exposed to misogynistic abuse and often use male avatars to avoid this type of trolling. So it was true to the story, but often felt she was trying to make a point, especially when we started skirting around subjects like trigger warnings and cancel culture. The sections that bothered me most were those around disability, particularly invisible disabilities and chronic illness. Strike is a hero, because of the war injury he sustained. He’s in that section of ‘acceptable’ disability that includes those who’ve acquired a disability in combat or try to ‘overcome’ their disability such as a Paralympian or other disability athlete. However, there are two characters in the book who have chronic illness, most notably ME or come under scrutiny from Strike and Robin as possible suspects in the case. Inigo uses a wheelchair and has an adapted home, character wise he is shown to have little patience, yelling at his children and wanting his environment just so. There’s an inference that his disability shouldn’t rule him out as the killer, as he could be playing on his symptoms. The second ME sufferer is a young girl who Strike goes to interview, but as he arrives at the house, she has fled out of the back door. This sudden movement immediately has him wondering whether she is also putting on her symptoms. However, Strike himself uses a flash of his disability to get into the family home – who would refuse a chair to a man with a prosthetic leg?
In the same breath the author does include articles about the Ink Black cartoon being ‘ableist’, showing an awareness of how problematic representations of disability can be. She also quotes the ‘spoonies’ blog, which refers to limited units of energy as spoons and exploring the difficulty of using more spoons than you have. I have always praised Galbraith’s depictions of Strike’s disability. Yes, he’s portrayed as a hero, but he’s not invincible as this novel’s physical difficulties shows. Where representation does become problematic here is that Strike is portrayed as wounded, but also a ‘hero’. He comes under the disability theory heading of a ‘supercripple’ – always able to perform beyond his abilities particularly when tasked with rescuing Robin. He’s also depicted as a sexual being, desirable to women still and clearly able to perform in the bedroom. Yet the character of Inigo, an ME patient, is not seen as sexual. In fact, again he’s under suspicion – aspersions are cast on his marriage, their sex life, and his character. I think this is possibly an attempt to show the reader how suspicious people are of those with invisible disabilities. It’s something I’ve experienced in my own life. However, there’s just something I’m uneasy about in these depictions. I was reminded of Ricky Gervais’s clever depictions of disability in The Office, where David Brent tries, in his own inimitable way, to educate his workers on how to approach a co-worker in a wheelchair. We’re supposed to be laughing at Brent, who’s so tone deaf he never asks how his colleague feels about being the subject of this impromptu lecture on disability awareness. He insults her as he tries his best not to, and that is the joke. Uneasily though, I wondered how many tone deaf people were laughing at what they complain is political correctness or at the wheelchair user who looks uncomfortable and embarrassed. This knife edge type of writing can go either way and I wondered how many people with ME would be comfortable with Galbraith’s representations of their disability. Since coming under scrutiny in the previous Strike novel for the depiction of a notorious serial killer dressing as a woman to lull the women he approached into a false sense of security. I would have thought it best to avoid controversial representations altogether. I have to take into account my own invisible disability, which may have prejudiced my feelings on the subject.
In all, this is another solid read from Galbraith, in terms of storyline and character development. It’s both entertaining and dramatic, with some complex and eccentric characters along the way. I love that we saw an even more vulnerable side to both characters, especially Strike. It was also great to see his dealings with ex-girlfriend, and trouble-maker, Charlotte taking a more realistic line. Maybe this clears the way for a different approach to matters of the heart for Strike and it’s this hope that will keep me looking out for the next instalment.
Meet The Author.
Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series is classic contemporary crime fiction from a master story-teller, rich in plot, characterisation and detail. Galbraith’s debut into crime fiction garnered acclaim amongst critics and crime fans alike. The first three novels The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013), The Silkworm (2014) and Career of Evil (2015) all topped the national and international bestseller lists and have been adapted for television, produced by Brontë Film and Television. The fourth in the series, Lethal White (2018), is out now.
Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym of J.K. Rowling, bestselling author of the Harry Potter series and The Casual Vacancy, a novel for adults. After Harry Potter, the author chose crime fiction for her next books, a genre she has always loved as a reader. She wanted to write a contemporary whodunit, with a credible back story.
J.K. Rowling’s original intention for writing as Robert Galbraith was for the books to be judged on their own merit, and to establish Galbraith as a well-regarded name in crime in its own right.
Now Robert Galbraith’s true identity is widely known, J.K. Rowling continues to write the crime series under the Galbraith pseudonym to keep the distinction from her other writing and so people will know what to expect from a Cormoran Strike novel.