Posted in Publisher Proof

Where I End by Sophie White

I don’t really know where to start with this extraordinary novel from Sophie White. I finished it and sat in a stunned silence for while, unsure what I’d just read. I love books that stir up feelings and there were so many: empathy, sadness and curiosity soon gave way to confusion, disgust and horror. This is a psychological horror that’s not for the faint hearted, but it’s also incredibly lyrical, atmospheric and strangely beautiful. We follow teenager Aoileann and her claustrophobic life on an island somewhere off Ireland, where there are few residents, even fewer visitors and a dialect that bears little relation to the outside world. Aoileann’s whole world is the house where she helps care for ‘the thing’ a wreck of a human being who never speaks and whose every need is met by others. Our unease, already awakened by the strange atmosphere and narration, is further aroused when we find out ‘the thing’ is Aoileann’s mother. How did she end up in this state, unable to do anything for herself, suffering from bed sores and her hands bloody stumps from scratching at the floor during her occasional nocturnal rambles? Why are they caring for her in this rudimentary way? Aoileann’s grandmother has instigating the care routine, a rather Heath Robinson affair done with no occupational therapy, no medical equipment or intervention.Why does her grandmother Móraí insist that Aoileann stay indoors, away from other islanders and with reminders to never talk about ‘the thing’? My mind was filled with so many questions, and alongside them grows Aoileann’s curiosity about why she’s never been to school and why she had to fight to be allowed to swim in the sea. Most confusing of all is that Móraí spits on the ground where Aoileann has walked, like a Romany warding off the evil eye.

Sophie White sets the scene so incredibly well with three sections that encompass Aoileann’s world, entitled my mother, my home and my house. The house has a forbidding look. Where once it had windows and a door that opened onto the sea view and towards their neighbours, these apertures are now blocked with stones. This is a house and a family that doesn’t look outward or admit visitors. When Aoileann talks of her home she talks about the island, not the house or her family. She is a wild thing. She belongs to the sea. She hates the land. The cliffs and beaches are perilous and Aoileann feels unnerved when she thinks about the small part of the island she can see and the deep expanse of land ‘lurking beneath us’. Yet in the water she feels free. Despite it being a watery grave for the island’s fishermen, as she slips under it’s silken surface she feels most like herself and swims like a Selkie. Their house is at the dangerous end of the island, the last dwelling on the road that ends with a sheer drop. Her mother is another landscape with it’s own treacherous drops and cavities to swallow one whole. Until now her she has been tended to by Móraí, but with a new visitor centre being built for bemused tourists, she is needed elsewhere for her knowledge of the island’s history. Caring for ‘the thing’ will become Aoileann’s main role. She already hates the thought of it, the monotony of an endless routine, just pushing things in and clearing them out of her ruined body.

The author’s depiction of the diseased or deformed body as a horror took me in two different directions. Intellectually my mind went to Kristeva’s essay on abjection ‘The Powers of Horror’ in which she theorises on the human response to a breakdown between subject and object; in this case our revulsion for the materiality and fragility of the decaying human body, reminding us of our own mortality and eventual decay. Viscerally I felt instant nausea, a type of bodily-felt memory of when I was a carer for my terminally ill husband. In my own writing about the experience I have struggled to be this raw and truthful about how repulsive caring for bodily functions can be, because of the love and sense of protection I still feel about him fifteen years later. I didn’t want people to display those aspects of his care, both for his privacy and because I didn’t want others to remember his declining physical body rather than his spirit, that indefinable ‘thing’ that made him who he was. I knew there were things I felt revulsion about, so what would others think? Here though, there are no tender feelings to complicate the reality of her mother Aoibh’s ruin, we can experience it all. These descriptions are strangely routine, the strange system of ropes and pulleys used to hoist the body from the bed are relayed to us with a detail that’s forensic and almost boring. It’s as if the person relaying the narrative is as worn down by this daily grind as the grooves in the wooden floor made by dragging the chair back and forth from bathroom to bedroom. Then the reality of caring for someone helpless hits us at full force, as she relates how ‘opportunistic bacteria and fungi find life enough in her to breed in places where her skin pleats and gathers’. I remember the drying of these places, the careful patting dry rather than rubbing, the application of barrier cream and the red welts left if a spot was missed. The part that provoked the most visceral reaction in me was the detail of her ruined hands, with just thumbs remaining untouched, her fingers mostly ‘end just passed the knuckle. The pad of her right index finger has worn away entirely and the bone extends like a tiny pick from the flesh’.

It’s with this implement that ‘the thing’ scratches marks in the floor, marks they must sand away before her Aoileann’s father visits and finds out his wife is moving. Aoileann starts to wonder if these marks are an attempt at communication so she records them in a journal and tries to piece them together. If she can, they will be the only words she has ever heard or seen from this wreckage of a mother, created the day something terrible happened and turned her grandmother into a permanent nurse maid, drove her father from the Ireland and left Aoileann with a mother who couldn’t communicate and a grandmother who had nothing left to give. Motherhood has been a fertile ground for horror ever since Frankenstein’s monster first opened it’s yellow eye and came to life. There are parallels here between Aoileann and the monster, firstly the idea of monstrous birth and that nature/ nurture debate on whether such creatures are born or made. There are vivid descriptions of pregnancy, casting a foetus as a parasite, growing inside with the potential to drain the life out of it’s host. Also, Frankenstein only thought about the creation of his monster, not what to do with it should he ever succeed. The monster’s abandonment and confusion is akin to Aoileann, craving love from the women she lives with or her distant father, whose attention is focused solely on the thing in the bed when he visits. Was she born cursed? Or was she cursed by others; her family or the islanders? There’s an emotionally devastating paragraph where she relates her desperate need to be held by a helpless mother and a grandmother who has always held herself apart.

‘if I did pull myself to her and laid my head against her belly, she became rigid and stayed that way until I understood moved away again. When the bed-thing didn’t respond to me, it felt ok because I had never seen it use it’s arms for anything, but Móraí’s arms were capable’.

This neglect has created a strange, damaged, girl and in psychological terms it is easy to see how she becomes attached to Rachel, a visiting artist staying at the new centre and tasked to produce artworks inspired by the island. Rachel is a new mother and Aoileann is fascinated by her bond with her baby Seamus. The love doesn’t fade, even when ‘it’ shrieks constantly and doesn’t let Rachel sleep at night. Aoileann is also drawn to Rachel’s fecund, maternal, body in stark contrast to her own mother’s wasting and slackness. Strange feelings start to stir in Aoileann, feelings she’s never felt and doesn’t understand. There’s excitement at the ideas and opportunities Rachel represents and the sheer productivity of someone who can nurture both her baby and her creativity. Yet there’s also a strangely curdled mix of lust and a neglected child’s need to be nurtured and cradled in the same way Rachel cares for Seamus. I felt for Aoileann, but strangely couldn’t like her. I could see the terrible void at the her centre, created by an unspoken tragedy that befell her family, but also a total lack of love and tenderness. A tenderness that’s missing in the way they care for her mother Aoibh, ‘the bed-thing’. Normally, I’d feel sadness for this girl and her strange, bleak, emptiness. What I actually felt was that the void inside was too big, an emotionless black hole that might swallow up anyone who tries to care. As the book comes towards it’s conclusion the tension is almost unbearable, the horror intensifies and I feared for for anyone who stood between Aoileann and what she needed. Bear in mind that this may be a difficult read if you are pregnant or a new mum. For everyone I’d say this is a raw, open wound of a novel. The gaping, open mouthed cry of a soul that doesn’t even know what is missing.

Meet The Author

SOPHIE WHITE is a writer and podcaster from Dublin. Her first three books, Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown (Gill, 2016), Filter This (Hachette, 2019), and Unfiltered (Hachette, 2020), have been bestsellers and award nominees, and have been described by Marian Keyes as ‘such fun – gas, clever stuff,’ and by White’s mother as ‘very good, of its type.’ Her bestselling memoir Corpsing (Tramp Press, 2021), was shortlisted for an Irish Book Award and the prestigious Michel Déon non-fiction Prize. Sophie’s publications include a weekly column ‘Nobody Tells You’ for the Sunday Independent LIFE magazine. She
has been nominated three times for Journalist of the Year
at the Irish Magazine Awards. She is co-host of the chart-topping comedy podcasts, Mother of Pod and The Creep Dive. Sophie lives in Dublin with her husband and three sons.

Where I End by Sophie White published on 13 October 2022 by Tramp Press as a Flapped Trade Paperback at £11.99
Sophie White is available for interview and to write pieces
For further information, please contact Helen Richardson at helen@helenrichardsonpr.com

Posted in Netgalley

Hello Stranger by Rachel Marks

Rachel Marks writes books that are deceptively simple, they flow well and it’s easy to find yourself six chapters in and fully immersed within the character’s world before you know it. Her novels are probably categorised as Contemporary Romance, but that suggests they follow a formula set down as far back as Shakespeare – from boy meets girl, through obstacles and eventually to the ubiquitous happy ending. I think there’s more to her work than that. Marks specialises in the messiness and complexity of modern relationships, tackling issues like mental health, addiction, divorce, co-parenting and bereavement. She has proved herself to be psychologically astute when it comes to the dynamics of relationships and families, and when I pick up one of her novels I know it’s going to be about relationships, but always with a twist or different perspective. Hello Stranger is no exception as we meet Lucy and Jamie, talking in bed one morning like any other couple. Except Lucy and Jamie are the loves of each other’s life and they are breaking up.

The book splits from this point, into the before of their break-up and the after. We get to see them meet for the first time and take the first tentative steps into their relationship towards the morning we’ve just witnessed. In between are the chapters looking at the aftermath from both points of view. I promise you, you will read this absolutely rooting for this couple just as I did. It’s heartbreaking to find that at the centre of their break-up is the question of whether they want to have children or not; Jamie does, but Lucy doesn’t. Lucy is something of a free spirit, who doesn’t really want the conventional life that she’s seen play out for her sister, who is married with two children. Lucy loves being an aunty more than anything, but has never felt maternal or had a sense of her biological clock ticking. She knows that people think she’ll change her mind one day, but Lucy doesn’t think so. It’s not a flippant choice, it’s something she’s thought a lot about and weighed up the pros and cons endlessly. She knows that her choice makes her unnatural in a lot of people’s eyes and she knows how much it disappoints her mum, who would love more grandchildren. She can’t feel what they want her to feel and it would be wrong to have children just to make others feel comfortable. I really felt for her, especially as she goes into the dating world knowing this about herself. I can’t have children and have an invisible disability so I was always concerned about when to slip this information into conversation. It’s not really a first date type of topic, when you want to be thinking of nothing more than whether there’s a spark between you. Yet, when is the right time to drop a bombshell like this on someone? If you wait till you know it’s a long term relationship haven’t you misled them? The problem is there are some things that society tends to assume about young women; they will be healthy and they will want to have a family.

Jamie is one of life’s good guys, the sort of boyfriend who will pop to the shop to buy some tampons and throw in a bar of chocolate without being asked. He’s thoughtful, open and honest. He does have baggage though. He lost his father at a very young age and still carries some guilt that he was not there when he died suddenly from a heart attack. His family also suffered the loss of a child, when his brother Thomas was stillborn. Children are an emotive subject for Jamie and he’s always known he wants them, to create a family of his own, now that it’s just him and his mum. He finds Lucy a challenge, but in a good way. She pushes him out of his comfort zone by taking him on an activity holiday in Andalusia where they go rafting over rapids. At first he’s nervous, but he finds it exhilarating. In fact Lucy is an exhilarating sort of person, she’s lively, talkative and full of ideas and plans for the future. It’s not long before he’s in love with her and he knows this is different from anything he’s felt before. He wants to be with this girl for life. When they finally discuss children, it’s clear this is something he has assumed she would want in the future. He’s known that travelling the world is important to her and he wants to discover new places and have adventures with her, but knows that realistically parenthood will curb that wanderlust. Despite finding themselves constantly back at this impasse, they don’t break-up. Lucy is as in love with Jamie as he is with her. As their relationship continues to go through milestones the question becomes ever more important, but it is essentially unsolvable. No one can compromise without sacrificing the life they want.

Is Lucy enough for Jamie, or will he come to resent her as the reality of being without children starts to sink in? Lucy can’t imagine having children for Jamie’s sake, wouldn’t she start to resent them for the changes in her life and the loss of the life she wanted. Maybe they just aren’t right for each other, despite the deepening feelings. For Lucy, Jamie is enough and she imagines a great life just the two of them. Lucy is immovable and it is up to Jamie to choose, but he can’t imagine life without Lucy in it. We follow every heart rending discussion that leads us to that morning in bed, but who will make the choice? It will take a catalyst to break the deadlock between them and throughout the book I could feel the tension rising towards that moment. I only know that once the choice was made I was desperately sad and kept hoping they would come back together, because this was a romance after all and don’t they always have happy endings?

I applaud the author for creating a character who has a point of view that many people still find difficult to understand, but making her sympathetic and loveable. She knows all the arguments and insults that people will throw at her for her choice; unnatural, cold, not a real woman, selfish. I have had the selfish argument mentioned to me in a discussion about the different siblings in a family. The childless couple were branded as really selfish, spending all their time playing golf, going on cruises and suiting themselves. I was dumbfounded by this argument that only by having children can we be truly selfless and found myself asking whether her children had wanted to be born? I kept hearing her say ‘we wanted’ children and surely that’s no less selfish than someone wanting to travel the world. People have children because they ‘want’ them, not because they’re doing the world a favour. If we stop using emotive words and assuming there’s one right way of being a woman, the decision to have children is simply a choice.

I have friends on both sides of this life choice: people who can’t have children; people who’ve sacrificed their desire for a family to stay with a partner who didn’t want them; people who thought they didn’t want children then became pregnant accidentally; people who’ve broken up with a partner who didn’t want children. There are also people like me, who lost several pregnancies, haven’t had children, then became a step-mum at 45. It’s never an easy road and I think we need to be more respectful of other people’s choices on this issue. Not everyone wants to be a parent and that’s okay. I felt sad for Lucy, terribly so, but I also felt strangely proud of her for sticking to her gut instinct and not being swayed, even by the person she loved most. To leave such a beautiful and loving relationship takes such courage and I didn’t envy their eventual decision. Marks has once again written such a bittersweet novel. I love the way it delves into the complexities and assumptions around motherhood. She takes two incredibly likeable characters and places them in such an impossible situation. However, what she also does is show that time mellows all experiences, even the painful ones. There is healing there for Lucy and Jamie, whether they eventually stay together or not.

Published on 18th August 2022 by Penguin.

Meet the Author

Rachel’s first two novels, Saturdays at Noon and Until Next Weekend, dealt with issues like addiction, divorce, parenting and re-marriage. Hello, Stranger is her third novel and came out in August. She lives in Gloucestershire with her husband and three children. When she’s not writing, she loves travelling, snowboarding and photography.

If you would like updates on upcoming books, offers etc you can follow Rachel on Twitter @Rache1Marks and Instagram rachelmarksauthor.

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight. The Chocolat Series by Joanne Harris.

One of the most enduring series of books in my collection and one I never tire of re-reading is Joanne Harris’s Chocolat series of novels. So far there are four novels in the series and every one has that perfect combination for me – strong women, good food, a beautiful continental setting, and a little sprinkle of magic. Each one features the enigmatic and charming Vianne Rocher, mother, chocolatier and witch. Vianne takes us from Provence to Paris, then back and everywhere she goes people seem drawn to her warm nature. Since I always find myself rereading Chocolat in the run up to Easter, I thought it was an ideal time to review this extraordinary series for anyone who hasn’t read it yet (although there’s probably not many) and those who haven’t read the sequels, perhaps only visiting the series due to the successful film adaptation starring Juliette Binoche as Vianne and Johnny Depp as Roux. Here’s why I love this magical and strangely comforting world Harris has created.

“There is a kind of alchemy in the transformation of base chocolate into this wise fool’s-gold, a layman’s magic that even my mother might have relished. As I work, I clear my mind, breathing deeply. The windows are open, and the through-draft would be cold if it were not for the heat of the stoves, the copper pans, the rising vapor from the melting couverture. The mingled scents of chocolate, vanilla, heated copper, and cinnamon are intoxicating, powerfully suggestive; the raw and earthy tang of the Americas, the hot and resinous perfume of the rain forest. This is how I travel now, as the Aztecs did in their sacred rituals: Mexico, Venezuela, Columbia. The court of Montezuma. Cortez and Columbus. The Food of the Gods, bubbling and frothing in ceremonial goblets. The bitter elixir of life.” Chocolat

I read this first book in the series long before the film adaptation and I’m glad I did since there were aspects changed, and I think the book is perfect as it is. Vianne Rocher, a single mum with a young daughter, blows into the small village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes on Shrove Tuesday. The villagers are still clearing away the last dregs of the carnival which heralds the beginning of Lent. Vianne and daughter Anouk, move into the disused bakery facing the church. Francis Reynaud, the young and opinionated curé of the parish, watches her arrival with disapproval and suspicion. When the priest realizes that Vianne intends to open a chocolate shop in place of the old bakery, thereby tempting the churchgoers to over-indulgence, Reynaud’s disapproval increases.

As the villagers of Lansquenet start falling under the spell of Vianne’s easy and charming ways, Reynaud feels that she undermines his own authority and he starts to see her as a danger. Yet Vianne’s influence is having a positive effect – an old woman embraces a new way of living, a battered wife finds the courage to leave her husband, children are rebelling against authority. Worse she’s even welcoming outcasts and strays such as the river gypsies. Reynaud feels like his tight and carefully ordered community is in danger of breaking apart. Easter approaches and both parties throw themselves whole-heartedly into the preparations; Vianne is creating delicacies for the chocolate festival she plans to hold on Easter Sunday. I think this is one of my favourite parts of the whole book, when Vianne is creating and you can tell that the author’s really luxuriating in the flavours and textures. There’s always that little touch of magic too. There’s her daughter Anouk with her little ‘shadow’ friend Pantoufle the rabbit who I adore. Vianne is naturally talented, but there’s a little touch of something that makes the fairy lights extra sparkly, or the delectable smell of hot chocolate drift that bit further up the road and into people’s homes.

It’s this something extra that Reynaud can sense, and it sends him looking for a way to win back his straying flock. Both factions have a great deal at stake and the village starts to feel divided, Some blame the river gypsies for the change in the air, but there is a power in the tension between Vianne and Reynaud that turns their emotions into a brisk wind stirring up the leaves in the church yard, or slamming doors as it goes. Vianne knows the danger of being different and she warns Anouk not to let Pantoufle become too visible. As Easter day comes closer their struggle becomes much more than a conflict between church and chocolate – it becomes an exorcism of the past, a declaration of independence, a showdown between pleasure and self-denial with an ending no one expects.

“The real magic – the magic we’d lived with all our lives, my mother’s magic of charms and cantrips, of salt by the door and a red silk sachet to placate the little gods – had turned sour on us that summer, somehow, like a spider that turns from good luck to bad at the stroke of midnight, spinning its web to catch our dreams. And for every little spell of charm, for every card dealt and every rune cast and every sign scratched against a doorway to divert the path of malchance, the wind just blew a little harder, tugging at our clothes, sniffing at us like a hungry dog, moving us here and moving us there.” The Lollipop Shoes

I was so excited to know that Vianne and her daughters were going to be back in another adventure, this time set in Paris. Tucked away in the cobbled streets of Montmartre, Yanne and her two daughters live peacefully, if not happily, above their little chocolate shop. Nothing unusual marks them out; no red sachets hang by the door. The wind has stopped – at least for a while. Then into their lives blows Zozie de l’Alba, the lady with the lollipop shoes – ruthless, devious and seductive. Set a few years after the events of Chocolat, Vianne has left Lansquent-sous-Tannes, and is now living in Paris with Anouk and her second daughter Rosette. Rosette is an unusual red haired child who doesn’t seem able to speak, but has her own special abilities like Anouk. Although we don’t know why at first, Vianne has changed her name to Yanne. Even more unexpectedly, she has suppressed her magic powers and is now contemplating a more conventional lifestyle, including marriage to the older, more traditional, Thierry le Tresset. Thierry is also their landlord and Anouk is concerned. She doesn’t like Thierry and wonders what has happened to her mother.

So much has changed and all the fun they used to have before is gone. Then Zozie de l’Alba turns up at Vianne’s chocolaterie with an air of magic and a trademark, she’s always wearing her bright red shoes. Anouk is ready for a friend and for some excitement so is easily to be seduced by Zozie’s charisma. This young woman becomes a part of the family’s lives and in the shop, but they don’t really know who she is. Against Vianne’s wishes, Anouk wants to practice with the magical power she has always had and Zozie uses this to create a wedge between mother and daughter. She encourages Anouk to use her magic, but what is her motivation in coming between mother and daughter? It feels personal, but Vianne doesn’t seem to know her. Then, Vianne’s previous lover arrives in Paris. One of the river gypsies from the village, and incidentally the father of Rosette, Roux and Vianne haven’t seen each other for four years. What does his arrival have to do with Zozie and why does she seem to creep ever closer into their lives?

This is the instalment of the series that comes closest to magic realism, and it definitely feels more fantastical and less warm than Chocolat. Yet there’s still something very readable about it and its still full of those long descriptions that send beautiful images dancing across my brain. Three characters narrate this sequel, and one of whom is Anouk which shows us how grown up she has become and gives her an independent voice from her mother. I loved how it shows the changes in the mother/ daughter relationship as the daughter grows up and wants to make her own mark on the world. It showed how households like this can come into conflict, often by not really listening. It was interesting to experience the three different perspectives and to see Anouk having her own voice. I did miss those other background characters that made Chocolat so special though, despite that this was a magical read and left me fully immersed in Harris’s world once again.

“I have never belonged to a tribe. It gives me a different perspective. Perhaps if I did, I too would feel ill at ease in Les Marauds. But I have always been different. Perhaps that’s why I find it easier to cross the narrow boundaries between one tribe and the next. To belong so often means to exclude; to think in terms of us and them – to little words that, juxtaposed, so often lead to conflict.” Peaches for Monsieur le Curé

It was a number of years before I read this book, the third in the Chocolat series, after finding a copy in a charity shop. I was happy and strangely soothed to find the village of Lansquenet still as lovely as ever. In fact I blame Joanne Harris for my urge to grow red geraniums for every hanging basket chapter’s narrator – a crescent for Vianne, a cross for M. le Cure. In fact the crescent is symbolic to the plot of the book as a new type of outsider now takes up residence at the other side of the river. The two differing populations in the village are the Catholics from one side of the river, and the Muslims from the other side. In fact there is even a minaret marking the mosque, just as the bells and spire mark out the church. As usual though, even though Vianne has allegiances in the village, she finds herself drawn to the far side of the river, where a plot develops involving the treatment of women that I enjoyed a lot. Vianne’s charm brings her friends within the Muslim community, as well as for Rosette and Anouk too. Rosette has her own spirit friend Bam, just like her sister had Pantoufle, but friendship with Maya really blossoms and Maya would love her own ‘djinn’ just like Bam. Vianne is intrigued by Ines, a woman who wears a black veil and who the locals believe is a dark spirit bringing fear and unrest. As Vianne knows too well, first impressions are seldom correct.

This book is a little darker in tone than the others, as Reynaud and his parishioner’s suspicion of the Muslim community, comes to a head. Vianne seems compelled to befriend her one time enemy. Now that she knows and understands Reynaud, she finds herself caring about him and as readers we do too, almost in spite of ourselves. Roux reminds Vianne that it isn’t her responsibility to fix things, but she can’t seem to help herself. I loved being back in this beautiful village and for me it’s the place where Vianne belongs. Harris brings the place alive with her beautiful descriptive passages and she also recreates some of those memorable characters I loved in the first book, However, the new community has its own interesting characters and I enjoyed getting to know them too. However, her girls are uneasy about making strong connections. They know all too soon the wind will change direction. Do they have to go with it this time?

“The almond blossom from the tree has gone, to be replaced by new green shoots. It smells of spring, and mown grass, and tilled earth from the fields beyond. Now is the month of Germinal in the Republican calendar: the month of hyacinth, and bees, and violet, and primrose. It is also the windy month; the month of new beginnings, and I have never felt it so strongly as I feel it now: that sense of possibility; that irresistible lightness.” The Strawberry Thief

This final instalment in the series is sitting on my TBR pile and it’s about time I went back to these incredible characters. Vianne Rocher has finally settled down! It’s Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, ironically the place that once rejected her, that has finally become her home. With the help of Rosette, her youngest child, she runs the chocolate shop in the square, talks to her friends on the river, and is part of the community. Even Reynaud, the priest, has now become a close friend. Then, old Narcisse, the florist, dies, leaving a parcel of land to Rosette and a written confession to Reynaud, throwing life in this sleepy village into disarray again. Then a mysterious new shop opens in the place of the florist’s across the square – one that strangely mirrors J hpidbdn, and has a strange appeal of its own – seems to herald a change: a confrontation, a turbulence – even, perhaps, a murder . . .

What will the wind blow in today?

Meet The Author

Joanne Harris is the internationally renowned and award-winning author of eighteen novels, plus novellas, scripts, short stories, libretti, lyrics, articles, and most recently, a self-help book for writers, TEN THINGS ABOUT WRITING. In 2000, her 1999 novel CHOCOLAT was adapted to the screen, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. She is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and is Chair of the Society of Authors.

Her hobbies are listed in Who’s Who as ‘mooching, lounging, strutting, strumming, priest-baiting and quiet subversion’. She is active on Twitter, where she writes stories and gives writing tips as @joannechocolat; she posts weekly writing seminars on YouTube; she performs in a live music and storytelling show with the #Storytime Band; and she works from a shed in her garden at her home in Yorkshire. 

She also has a form of synaesthesia which enables her to smell colours. Red, she says, smells of chocolate. Weirdly, I also have synaesthesia and at this time of year it’s very active, with every bunch of yellow daffodils, smelling or even tasting of lemon sherbet!

Posted in Netgalley

The Image of Her by Sonia Velton

From the author of Blackberry & Wild Rose comes an extraordinary story of two women who never meet and yet share the closest possible bond.

STELLA and CONNIE are strangers, brought together by two traumatic events – cruel twists of fate that happen thousands of miles apart.

Stella lives with her mother, a smothering narcissist. When she succumbs to dementia, the pressures on Stella’s world intensify, culminating in tragedy. As Stella recovers from a near fatal accident, she feels compelled to share her trauma but she finds talking difficult. In her head she confides in Connie because there’s no human being in the world that she feels closer to.

Connie is an expat living in Dubai with her partner, Mark, and their two children. On the face of it she wants for nothing and yet … something about life in this glittering city does not sit well with her. Used to working full time in a career she loves back in England, she struggles to find meaning in the expat life of play-dates and pedicures.

Two women set on a collision course. When they finally link up, it will not be in a way that you, or I, or anyone would ever have expected.

This was an unusual follow up to Sonia Velton’s historical fiction debut Blackberry and Wild Rose, but had the same stunning characterisation and detail that set her writing apart. This was a classy domestic thriller with two characters on such a fascinating journey. Connie and Stella are such complex characters, written with incredible psychological insight, that I felt immediately drawn into their disparate worlds.

Stella’s life has been dominated by her mother, who died after a long struggle with dementia. Stella has been her full-time carer and this would be enough to explain her sense of dislocation from the rest of the world, but their relationship was always difficult anyway. She’s now 39 and as well as feeling burnout from her caring role, she thinks her inability to connect with others has a root in their mother-daughter relationship. Utterly ground down by life, Stella realises that her mother has been psychologically abusive and manipulative her whole life. It felt to me that Stella’s mental health issues were directly related to having a narcissistic parent. It’s clear that Stella’s mother belittled her, knowing exactly which buttons to push to inflict the most pain. There was also an element of gaslighting, where her mother would deny things she’d said or convince Stella she’d misconstrued them. She never validates Stella’s feelings, so instead of acknowledging her words and apologising, she says she’s sorry that Stella felt upset.

Her mother’s love came with conditions, turning Stella into a perfectionist, constantly feeling she has to change or placate the other person to deserve their love. The perfectionism has bled into all areas of Stella’s life. Her mother wanted her to be successful, because it reflected on her own skills as a mother. Stella is very aware of how others might see her, because it was all her mother cared about – the emphasis on how things appear rather than caring how they actually are. If Stella was well-behaved, well turned out and looked pretty it didn’t matter to her mother how she felt. As she wrestles with these issues in later life, Stella doesn’t really have anyone in whom to confide. However, when she’s recovering from a serious accident, she starts a dialogue with a woman called Connie on social media. It may be the safety of not being seen, being able to hide behind the anonymity of the keyboard, but Stella feels this is someone she can trust with even her most private thoughts.

Connie is a stay at home Mum, on a compound of British families in Dubai. Her husband was offered a great job opportunity, but it left her in an unfamiliar place with all her usual support network thousands of miles away. Connie doesn’t find Dubai inspiring and, perhaps because of where they’re living, she doesn’t feel as immersed in local culture as she expected. Dubai is a man made and designed space. Although it existed as a small fishing village as far back as the 18th Century, the current expanded city is very much focused on tourism with sculptured and themed island complexes such as the Palm Jumeirah. This means it is a place that people pass through, rather than stay. Feeling increasingly lonely and isolated, Connie needs something to do outside the home, and her husband Mark has suggested they have a live-in housekeeper. This would free Connie to do other things, but her keen sense of social justice means she finds this a difficult prospect. She finds she can’t ignore the exploitation of local people by the foreign settlers. She simply can’t ignore the inequality in front of her and her marriage starts to feel the strain, not helped by in-laws she doesn’t see eye to eye with. Although this two women are geographically miles away from each other, their overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness is very similar.

I thought the author was brilliant at letting her characters tell the story. Stella narrates in the first person and I felt completely absorbed in her narrative. Maybe that was because she talks like a client would speak to me in the counselling room. I was soon drawn in to her world and the difficulties she’s having. Connie’s narrative is in the third person, so it didn’t feel quite as immersive as Stella’s, although it did allow for the points of view of other characters like her husband or in-laws. I thought the authors insight into an ex-pat life in the Middle East was brilliant, because it felt raw and honest, and a million miles away from how people often describe Dubai. I really became incensed with the social injustice and know I couldn’t have lived there and let it wash over me, without trying to change things. I also liked her honesty about motherhood – there are no rose- tinted spectacles here.

I thought that this complete change of genre and time period really showed this author’s range as a writer and her incredible skill at creating complex and believable characters. I loved the focus on themes of self- worth and what we draw on to create our identity; is it our inner life or our outer appearance that informs us of who we are? It brought me back to an idea that fascinates me as a therapist that we call congruence. Are we presenting to the world the authentic person we are inside or a constructed identity based on outer appearances? Do our inside and outside selves match up and how does it feel when they don’t? This was a thoroughly enjoyable novel that will be fascinating to anyone interested in character driven narratives, identity and social justice. It will be interesting to see what this talented writer creates next.

Meet The Author

Sonia Velton has been a solicitor in Hong Kong, a Robert Schuman Scholar in Luxembourg and spent eight years being an expat Mum of three in Dubai. She now lives in Kent. Her first novel, BLACKBERRY AND WILD ROSE was short-listed for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, long-listed for the HWA Debut Crown and has been optioned for film. Her second book, THE IMAGE OF HER, is a literary thriller about two women whose lives come together in a way that is both chilling and awe-inspiring.