I have absolutely loved reading this charming and uplifting debut novel from Lizzie Damilola Blackburn and I already know it’s one I will keep on the bookshelves and read again in the future. It has such charm and a huge heart at it’s centre. Yinka is a 31 year old British Nigerian woman with a degree from Oxford and a brilliant job at an investment bank, but despite all that she has going for her, she hears only one thing from her mother and aunties. Why is she still single? What exactly is she doing wrong? A perfect storm of circumstances affects Yinka’s confidence: her baby sister Kemi is about to have a baby; her friend Rachel becomes engaged and starts planning her wedding; then she expects a promotion at work and is instead made redundant. When her Mum and Aunty Debbie both pray out loud for her to find a man at Kemi’s baby shower, Yinka feels humiliated. Using her project planning skills she decides on a course of action. She will find a man in time to take a date to Rachel’s wedding.
I found the themes of identity woven into the storyline fascinating and complex. At the start of the novel Yinka is wearing her hair short and natural, is more likely to be in jeans than traditional Nigerian fabrics and prefers to eat fried chicken than learn to cook African food. Yet there are so many opinions and judgements, both in her everyday life and on social media, on what it means to be a British Nigerian and an attractive, desirable black woman. The men she meets aren’t short of opinions either. Donovan, who she knows from her gap year working for charity, despairs of her lack of knowledge about hip-hop and music of black origin in general. She accepts an introduction to Alex, a single man at her Mum’s church and they start to chat on social media. He seems to think she should be more aware of her Nigerian culture. He voices surprise, and judgement, that she can’t cook Nigerian food and she doesn’t know many words of the Yoruba language. A Tinder meet up goes horribly wrong when her date makes the assumption she will sleep with him on their second date. When Yinka explains that part of her faith is prizing her virginity and that sex is sacred, something she would only do with her husband. He seems okay about it, but then ghosts her, finally accusing Yinka of misleading him, because this is something she should have made clear up front. Her experience with Emmanuel was the one I found most painful and my heart broke a little for her. He goes to her Mum’s church and she has to swallow her pride just to agree on a number exchange. On FaceTime though he seems disappointed and admits that he agreed to pass on his number, because he thought she was someone else. It’s not his fault, he says, but he does prefer girls with lighter skin. It’s not hard to see how these experiences and opinions chip away at Yinka until she feels like she’s lost herself.
Yinka is constantly receiving messages about the woman she should be, through her experiences, the constant badgering from her Mum, and from social media. The black women society deems beautiful have lighter skin in caramel tones, long and flowing Western hair, and are curvaceous. Yinka feels her skinny body, her J shape bottom and dark skin are not good enough. Even the messages she is receiving from her own family don’t help. Her Mum openly criticises her short Afro hair, it used to be so long and beautiful, how will she get a huzband if she doesn’t make an effort? Yinka has internalised these messages all her life – the lighter her skin, the rounder her bottom, the longer and more Western her hair, the more attractive she will be. She tries a wig for a date then is constantly terrified of the parting being off centre and when her date touches it she knows he has never dated a black woman before – black men know not to touch women’s hair. When she gets a weave and wears one of her friend Nana’s dresses, made from African fabric, her Mum radiates approval – see how pretty she is? My heart went out to her when she remembers her Dad saying to her that the moon is just as beautiful as the sunshine, that midnight has a beauty all of its own. Another problem is the comparisons her Aunties and her Mum make, between Yinka and her sister or her friends, creating division and resentment. Her mum’s constant praise of the beautiful light skinned Kemi, the little sister who has pipped Yinka to the post by getting married and now adding to the family with her new son Chinedu, makes Yinka resent her sister. They become more distant from each other and never talk about the way their mum behaves. Her cousin Ola even laughs when the older women badger Yinka and embarrass her, Ola is married with three children, but is she as happy as her aunties assume she is?
The two aspects of the book I related to so strongly were the culture around Pentecostal Christianity and the role of counselling. Yinka normally attends the Church of England, but her Mum and Aunties frequent the All Welcome Pentecostal church and this felt so familiar to me as I grew up in a New Life Pentecostal Church. I found the scenes with the church so humorous and true to life, especially the constant praying out loud, even at parties. It was a very hard church to grow up in and those teenage years onward when I was single I felt hounded by youth leaders telling me what I could and couldn’t do in a dating situation, that I should only date other Christians and then pushing me towards people I didn’t find remotely attractive. I had a ‘boyfriend’ at church when I was 12 and we only saw each other at youth group and church. It really was more of a friendship, but youth leaders treated it like a serious relationship and when I wanted to break up I was forced to pray about it in a group. The youth leader prayed that God would bring us back together in the future. I felt that single girls were treated with suspicion and that adults were just waiting to matchmake. I rebelled at 16 and walked away, because I felt judged and stifled. It was wonderful though, to read about these experiences and hear certain phrases like being ‘in the spirit’, the endless praying out loud, the sense of having elders to answer to, because it’s rare for someone to understand my experience. It’s even more rare to see it in fiction in a way that acknowledges its drawbacks, but also its benefits and the deep well of humour it provides.
Counselling is something that my church would have been very resistant to, but I am now a counsellor myself and I loved seeing how positively it was portrayed in the book. The use of writing as therapy is something I do with clients and I was moved by Yinka’s letter to her younger self, going back and undoing some of the negative judgements and ideals she had internalised. It was brilliant to see how it took Yinka deeper, into how imbalanced those parental injunctions had become once she lost her father. I wanted Yinka to realise she had two incredible role models to aspire to; her Aunty Blessing who is happy and fulfilled despite having no husband or children and her friend Nana who is simply not bothered with dating and is pouring her energies into building her fashion brand. I loved both of these women and how they really pull Yinka back from the brink, help her untangle the lies she’s told and work out what and where she really wants to be in life. It reminded me of the power of female friendship and how it is most often the women who will hold you up in life. I loved how Yinka’s changes through counselling rippled out to others around her too. Once she has started to talk there are relationships she can mend and maybe others that need some redefining and new boundaries set. Her realisations, about her Mum particularly, are interesting and Yinka’s bravery in trying to address how she has felt made me feel so proud of her. It showed how counselling doesnt just create change in one person, it can change the people around them too. I don’t know if Yinka will ever return, but she was a great character to spend time with and I’d definitely be first in the queue for more. This was a pleasure to read from beginning to end, full of strong female characters, emotionally aware and addressing some really tough issues in a humorous and ultimately uplifting way.
Meet The Author
Lizzie Damilola Blackburn is a British-Nigerian writer, born in Peckham, who wants to tell the stories that she and her friends have longed for but never seen – romcoms ‘where Cinderella is Black and no-one bats an eyelid’. In 2019 she won the Literary Consultancy Pen Factor Writing Competition with the early draft of Yinka, Where is your Huzband?, which she had been writing alongside juggling her job at Carers UK. She has been at the receiving end of the question in the title of her novel many times, and now lives with her husband in Milton Keynes.
The experience of motherhood is such a rich seam of material that writers are always mining it in new and creative ways. Every relationship between mother and child is different and it is one of my favourite subjects in fiction, because of that variety but also because of the emotional complexity. Without my mum I wouldn’t have my love of literature. It was mum who taught me to read. She always had books around the house and took us to the local library to borrow books and explore whatever we wanted to read. I’m so proud of my mum, that despite being unable to finish her secondary education, she has always loved literature and writes beautiful poetry. She introduced me to classics through her book collection and through film adaptations that she enjoyed. I watched D.H.Lawrence adaptations Women in Love and The Virgin and the Gypsy, the Thomas Hardy adaptations of Tess and Far From the Madding Crowd with Alan Bates, and the beautiful 1970s adaptation of L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between starring Julie Christie, which I still love to this day. Thanks to her I was introduced to Du Maurier, Mary Webb and the beauty (rather than the sensationalism) of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. These days she is the first person I would take to see a literary film and the first member of my book club. She is endlessly understanding, encouraging and doesn’t judge me whatever I do. My own experience with motherhood has been a difficult one, so when choosing the mothers for this post I wanted to include the tougher parts of being and becoming a mum. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you mums, step mums, adoptive mums, fosterers and those whose babies have angel wings. I hope you all have a wonderful day celebrating the love you all have for your children and the love they have for you.
The Ideal Mum. Marmee from Little Women.
“Money is a needful and precious thing,—and, when well used, a noble thing,—but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self- respect and peace.”
Marmee is the sort of literary mum who gives the reader a great big hug from within the pages. Yes her Christian values are a little out of step with today’s society, but if you listen to her wisdom such as the quote above there’s still so much to take away from it. She’s teaching her girls that however much you have, you’ll be richer by sharing it with someone else. I love that she allows her girls the freedom to explore who they are, especially Jo who doesn’t dress like other girls, uses slang and is always running, leaping over gates and climbing down the drainpipe. She even allows her a relationship with Laurie from next door that’s very close and ignores the society gossips who think she’s hoping to make a rich match for her daughter. Marmee knows that Laurie respects her and her daughters. She teaches the girls to be charitable, and not just with material things but with time and commitment. She’s incredible with her advice, her time and her love. Most of all though, she influences them by example; one of my favourites is when she tells Jo about her own terrible temper and her attempts to master it. Her relationship with Jo evolves into a friendship as Jo becomes older and has returned home to nurse her sister Beth. They have a frank discussion about Laurie, now in Europe on his Grand Tour, and Jo doesn’t hold back. She admits that were Laurie to return and ask her to marry him a second time she might say yes, not because her feelings for him have changed but because she cares more about being loved these days. Loss and loneliness have made Jo appreciate what he was offering, and I love that the only person she shares this with is her mum.
The Feminist Mum. Pauline Mole from Adrian Mole’s Diaries.
“All under-fives are mad Adrian, you used to talk to the moon. You invited it to your birthday party and cried when it didn’t turn up.” George: “When it went dark and the moon came up, you ran outside and threw a sausage roll at it!”
I don’t think we can call Pauline Mole an ideal mum, but she is more realistic and probably one of the funniest mums in literature. Adrian despairs of his parents, in fact at one point he’s so disillusioned that he observes he wouldn’t be surprised if his father turned out to be a Russian agent and his mother ran off with a circus knife thrower. I always remember when Adrian’s father George gives him some sage advice about matters of the heart. He suggests that before he even thinks about marrying a woman, he should live with her and if she leaves her knickers on the floor for more than three days not to bother. There are the romantic entanglements, first with Mr (Ratfink) Lucas and then with Ivan Braithwaite father of Pandora. However, she does end up in a cottage caring for George after he’s had a stroke. She has a feminist awakening in the 1980’s when she organises a trip for ladies in the close to Greenham Common. They come back awakened and are keeping Adrian awake singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ till the wee small hours. She even names Adrian’s baby sister Rosie Germaine Mole after reading The Female Eunuch. Despite having an ideal son called Brett Mole in her head she does love her son and is there whenever something goes badly wrong. She collects him when everything goes wrong after his brief stint as a celebrity chef. When Adrian is ill in the final diary of the series, she is the one who drives him to hospital every day and nurses him at home too after his wife leaves. Despite making mistakes with each other, mother and son do stick together.
The Unexpected Mum. Marilla Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables.
I loved Anne of Green Gables when I was younger and even now, if this particular adaptation of the books is on I do watch, because I love this depiction of the rather severe Marilla, a woman who never expected to be a mum. Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert are brother and sister, running a farm together on Prince Edward Island in Canada. They decide to apply for an orphan, a boy who will be able to help them with the farm work as Matthew gets older. Yet, when Matthew goes to the train station to collect their new charge he finds a freckle faced, red headed girl with two pigtails and a hot temper. Being soft hearted and not knowing what to do, he takes her home to Marilla. I love how Marilla has no idea what to do with Anne Shirley, in fact at first she wants Matthew to return her, but she slowly thaws towards this unexpected girl who tries her patience terribly. Marilla is an old maid so has never expected to be a mum, especially not to the dreamy and clumsy Anne. Marilla can seem harsh and has just as hot a temper as Anne does, but slowly she learns to love the girl she wanted to send back and watching Anne love Marilla, knocking off her harsh edges, is so heart-warming. As an unexpected step mum myself I do have a soft spot for this particular woman, who it turns out had missed her one chance of love and a family many years before.
The Mum Who Will Do Anything. Veronica Murphy from This Is How We Are Human.
Louise Beech’s novel was one of my favourite books of last year and the story has stayed with me, because its hard not to fall in love with Sebastian Murphy and the lengths Veronica will go to for her child are incredible. As mum to a son with autism, Veronica is used to having an unconventional relationship. She knows everything about her son: his schedule, favourite music, the way he likes his eggs. She expected questions about relationships as he got older, but is a bit shocked when he tells her he’d like to have sex. She’s helped him negotiate everything else in his world. Should she help with this and how would she go about it? This is a mum who has tried to insulate her son from all the difficulties he might face in the world. He loves swimming and he still goes to the same swimming group he did when he was eight. He doesn’t like change so Veronica fixed it for him, so how is she going to cope now he’s entering into an area of life there’s no control over? Her solution might shock some people, she decides to meet with a sex worker with the name of Violetta. Violetta is working to pay for student loans and for her father’s care. He is affected by a stroke and wanted to rehabilitate at home rather than a nursing home. Veronica makes an agreement: a set time every week for Sebastian to spend time with Violetta. However, Veronica is worried about him becoming too attached, what if his emotions bleed into the arrangement? These three people will affect each other in unexpected ways and its just possible that Veronica has underestimated her son. A beautiful, moving story about the things we do for people in the name of love, and a depiction of a mother who’s far from conventional, but is determined that her child will be happy.
Mums in Waiting. Zoe Baxter from Sing You Home.
Zoe and Max Baxter are having problems in their marriage, after a ten years struggle with infertility. They have frozen embryos stored at a medical facility, but since every attempt has so far failed they are left heartbroken. They are struggling to grieve together and with heavy hearts agree to separate. Max finds consolation in God and joins an evangelical church, soon making friends and finding support. Zoe’s life starts to change unexpectedly when a new colleague starts at the school. Zoe works with the students using music therapy, so she works in close contact with the new school counsellor Vanessa. They form a friendship, but much to Zoe’s surprise their feelings start to deepen. Zoe finds herself falling in love and coming into conflict with her ex-husband’s new born-again Christian views. So, when Vanessa and Zoe discuss starting a family, and she approaches Max about their remaining embryos, it’s no surprise to find he’s resistant to the idea. Those three embryos are Zoe’s final chance to have her own biological children and her desperation is understandable. However, doesn’t Max have a right not to become a father, especially in circumstances he doesn’t agree with? As the two become embroiled in a court battle for rights to the embryos, Max makes it clear he believes Zoe and Vanessa’s relationship to be an aberration. Zoe is not going to give up her right to be a mother without a fight. As a woman who has Hughes Syndrome, I know the heartbreak of being unable to have your own children. The treatment for Hughes meant given up a lot of the medication for my Multiple Sclerosis and then medicating to thin my blood for three months before any attempt to conceive. I decided with a heavy heart that perhaps motherhood was something I wouldn’t experience. Twenty years later I’m an unexpected step mum and love the challenge of helping to raise two teenage girls. I believe motherhood is a gift and not a right, and although I don’t agree with Max’s views on same sex relationships, I can understand his reticence to become a father with Zoe after their split. It’s a tough, complicated court case and I seemed to changed my mind with every chapter.
Complicated Mums. Eva from We Need To Talk About Kevin, Sethe from Beloved, and Leda from The Lost Daughter.
Of course all mother-child relationships are complicated, but these are a little more complicated than most. In The Lost Daughter we are on holiday with Leda, who is taking a break alone in Italy. As she lies on the beach reading each day she notices the mother-daughter relationship between young mum Nina and her daughter Elena. Slow and unsettling, her observance of this relationship opens up her relationship with her own daughters. In watching Nina’s motherhood she is taken back to when her own daughters were young. She sees the ideal of motherhood as a performance, a performance she didn’t want to undertake. There are echoes of problematic motherhood throughout this novella. Leda’s own mother threatens to leave her, but is that any better than leaving without warning, like Leda did? When Elena loses her doll, Leda finds it and does perform those simple tasks of caring for it, the washing and drying are soothing when the recipient is silent and lifeless. Leda explores that pull between career and motherhood dragging her in two different directions, but also that feeling of giving herself so wholly to the care of others that she loses who she is. The whole book is claustrophobic, Nina’s family feel threatening but for no specific reason and Leda’s anxious introspection adds to the tension. This is a dark and brutally realistic look at motherhood with an intelligent grasp of intergenerational trauma.
In Beloved we are introduced to Sethe, a freed slave who escaped the plantation named Sweet Home and found a home with her mother-in-law Baby Suggs. Sethe lives with an ailing Baby Suggs, her daughter Denver, the dog and the angry ghost who has been haunting their home for most of that time. Toni Morrison explores so many complex mother-child relationships through Sethe. How do you feel about those children who were taken from you? How do you mother the children forced on you? How do you mother the ghost child whose so angry with you they won’t let you live in peace? Sethe has learned to live alongside the baby ghost and the guilt of killing her with the handsaw from the shed, rather than see her suffer the slavery Sethe escaped. The baby’s headstone simply reads Beloved, but that mother’s love is tested when a young woman turns up at the door claiming that she is Sethe’s lost daughter. This young woman is the embodiment of all Beloved’s fury and she slowly encircles Sethe, demanding her attention and love while excluding her daughter Denver. Beloved ruins Sethe’s fledgling relationship with another escapee of Sweet Home. She is a parasite who won’t be satisfied until she has consumed her mother. This is a genuinely scary ghost story, but the real horror lies in the history of slavery and Sethe’s experiences before her escape. We are never sure whether the young woman is Beloved, a demon or a manifestation of Sethe’s own guilt.
One of the most complicated mother and child relationships I’ve ever read is that between Eva and her son in Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Take About Kevin. The most brilliant thing about this story is how ambiguous it is; is Eva a terrible mother who creates a monster or is Eva correct in her belief that Kevin is born a monster. Shriver brilliantly portrays their relationship from Kevin’s birth onwards, but always in Eva’s voice. As she portrays events from his early years the reader is left to make their own judgement of his actions. Persistent crying is something most parents experience, but in Eva’s eyes this is a battle of wills and Kevin wants to break her. I veer between feeling suspicious of Eva and terribly sorry for her. Even if Kevin is just the average baby, Eva is clearly exhausted and not coping but her husband just doesn’t see it. He believes Kevin is just a normal, exhausting, baby and Eva is overreacting, but never seems to think Kevin might come to harm despite his wife’s feelings about their son. Interspersed with these difficult early years is Eva’s present day situation dealing with the aftermath of an horrific mass murder. Cleverly, Shriver keeps the tension going, in fact it seems to be heightened as Eva takes us back to situations from Kevin’s earlier life that seem to foreshadow his murderous tendencies – there’s a scene with eyes and lychees that completely turns my stomach. Despite being completely unnerved by her son, Eva is constant. Her husband convinces her to have a second child, a daughter who she’s sure will be Kevin’s victim. Yet despite Kevin’s actions she never walks away. I guess its up to the reader as to whether that’s a good thing or not.
Mums That Make Me Cry. Rachel in Everything Happens For A Reason and Jess in I Wanted You To Know.
In her debut novel Everything Happens For A Reason Kate serves up raw emotional honesty in her character Rachel, whose son Luke was stillborn. When a well-meaning but thoughtless woman tells her ‘everything happens for a reason’ Rachel becomes obsessed with finding that reason. She is deranged by grief and feels that Luke’s death must be her fault, so she fixates on an incident from earlier in her pregnancy, when she stopped a man from jumping in front of a train. What if stopping that man from killing himself meant that her child died? She becomes determined to find him, enlisting the help of an underground worker Lola and her daughter, Josephine. I lost several pregnancies in my late twenties, so this was a tough read in parts, particularly the insensitivity of well meaning family and friends. I remember some of the most painful things said to me, were from people who meant well. I also recognised the endless questions that Rachel subjects herself to and the endless turmoil – marking milestones, imagining her child’s lost future, the complete emptiness and inability to feel or reach him after nine months of him being part of her. There were times when standing a room of people when I wanted to scream out loud. To communicate some of how it felt inside. I was so glad Kate wrote this novel because it made me feel like a mother. Everyone has always thought of me as childless, whether by choice or not, whereas I felt like a mum. A mum who had lost her children.
In her third novel I Wanted You To Know Laura Pearson tells her story in a series of letters, letters written by Jess to her daughter Edie. Jess didn’t expect to be negotiating life as a single mother. She certainly didn’t expect to be juggling a newborn and cancer treatment. This part of life is meant to be a beginning, not an ending. Not knowing how much time she has left and full of all the wisdom she wanted to give her daughter at different times in her life, Jess starts to write letters for Edie. Dear Edie, I wanted you to know so many things. I wanted to tell you them in person, as you grew. But it wasn’t to be. This novel is a real heartbreaker as Jess has to decide who she wants to be there for her daughter and what she would want her to know about school, leaving home, getting her first boyfriend and becoming a mum. Yet, it never feels maudlin, just real, raw and honest. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must be to become aware that the most precious thing in your life will have to grow up without you. What I love most about the book is the way the author avoids making Jess a saintly figure. When I think about the book I’m blown away by this woman’s practicality and courage, but it’s done in such an understated way.
What an intricately beautiful and nuanced novel this is! I had expected a story along the same lines as Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine or Meredith Alone at first. The beautiful aesthetics of the setting and glamorous lifestyle dazzle us and everything on the surface seems benign as Sunday and her daughter Dolly start a relationship with their new neighbours. Vita is aristocratic in her manner and comes across as a likeable eccentric, perhaps a little pretentious but as my friend Nigel used to say, ‘a little bit of pretension doesn’t hurt anyone’. They love- bomb Sunday and her daughter with gifts and elaborate Friday night dinners. Vita and her husband Rollo are staying in the house next door while ‘Rols’ completes a plan to buy and convert a large institution for children in care nearby. Until this glamorous pair enter their lives, Sunday and Dolly lead a very quiet life. Divorced from Dolly’s father, they still live in a house on his family estate where Sunday works in the gardens. Sunday isn’t great with noise (especially several at once) only eats white food and struggles to read between the lines with others. She gets on best with David who works in the greenhouses with her and uses sign language to communicate. Extremes of anything, cause panic in Sunday, so the slow rhythms of nature and it’s subtle colouring are perfect for her. Sunday didn’t even know anything was missing in her life until Vita wants to become her friend. However, is Vita a genuine friend or does she have an ulterior motive? This is where the slightness of the story and the details of glamorous clothes, extravagant dinners and endless champagne started to remind me of Virginia Woolf and her clever way of hiding so much beneath a beautiful surface. Instead of being an uplifting tale about someone who struggles to make connections finding a friend and embracing their peculiarities, this promised to be something darker.
I felt a kinship with Sunday immediately and the tone is light at first as she meets new neighbour Vita and her comical little dog Beast. Vita is one of those people who never question themselves or worry about their interactions with others. She simply inserts herself into Sunday’s life, without any of the social angst over whether she’s wanted there. Vita and her husband Rollo are dazzling and disarming, from the clothes they wear to the hyperbole in their speech and the very best delicacies on the dinner table, including the most exquisitely wrapped and coloured petit fours. They are disarming in the way they present themselves, classy but bohemian and often a touch of carelessness like sitting on the front step in a silk kimono and old work boots. Is this nonchalance studied or natural? Conversely, Sunday can’t be what she isn’t and her ‘quirks’ are not affectations. She has learned to be less, to mask and try to make herself acceptable from a young age thanks to a mother who never showed her love. She constantly proclaimed Sunday was an ‘it’, a ‘what’, an unsavoury puzzle to be solved. We learn that this animosity towards her daughter worsened when a terrible family tragedy occurred. I loved how the author layered the voices in Sunday’s head: her daughter explaining that her dad and stepmum love each other so much, it’s just that Sunday is incapable of seeing it; her mother saying ‘you’re not wired right you’; her sister saying ‘I don’t know what you are Sunday’. At first, the friendship of Vita and Rollo soothes Sunday’s soul, because she feels accepted. They always make sure white rolls are available at the dinner table, in case the main course is too colourful or complex for her. They also make sure there is champagne or soda water, because Sunday will only drink cold, fizzy liquids. These attentions are simply there, neither one of the couple mention them, but they mean the world to Sunday:
‘their attention to my preferences touched me. I had not been known in this way before and found acceptable. There I was seen and approved of, even indulged’.
At first, Dolly and Sunday would often stay late next door after dinner, but subtle changes start to occur. Dolly wants to stay over with Vita on Friday nights. One night, after leaving for home, Sunday returns with her daughter’s favourite pyjamas and hears music as well as laughter next door. Yet when Rollo answers the door, he holds it closed behind him as he takes the pyjamas. He is perfectly polite, but does not step back as he once might have done to let Sunday inside. These subtleties make the reader nervous and I felt worse because I wasn’t sure whether Sunday could see what I was seeing.
‘painted subjects are easier to read than their physical counterparts […] in real life the details I am drawn to are often secondary, and these often mislead. That evening when I looked at Vita, I saw her pretty hair, her little wrists wrapped in gold chains, and her welcoming smile. I did not notice the grip of her hand on my daughter’s arm’.
I wanted to put myself between Sunday and these charming people. She recalls jealousy, but was it because she envied Dolly’s easy relationship with Vita or was she jealous of Vita’s relationship with her daughter? The subtle foreshadowing becomes more direct as Dolly relates the story of Vita simply taking a friend’s baby for a walk without telling the mother. Vita seemingly could not understand why the woman was so scared or why the police were called. Slowly, Sunday understands that her new friend is possibly not what she seems, by using a system of observation and noting patterns of behaviour. Yet I was still worried that she might underestimate the extent of Vita’s ability to create chaos. Sunday describes her way of analysing people, to look beyond their ‘fleeting expressions’ to see the repeated pattern on their heart. She looks beyond what they say and instead values and interprets them based on their repeated behaviour. Yet with Vita she declares herself too scared to look, because she isn’t sure whether the tick tock of her heart signifies a clock or a bomb.
Dolly’s changes are also subtle at first, but Sunday notices a new confidence and self-possession that she is acquiring from time spent with their neighbours. Whereas once Dolly might have been reserved with new people, Vita unlocks the young girl who is soon easily pushed to near hysteria over a shared joke. This quantity of feeling makes Sunday uneasy. Yet surely this new ease in her daughter’s manner can only make life easier for Dolly? She won’t share Sunday’s fears and awkwardness. The coming summer heralds a rollercoaster of change and emotions, first Dolly’s accent becomes more cut glass and she starts to dress differently, more like Vita. As exams loom and the renovation of the children’s home comes closer, the couple offer Dolly a job helping out with admin and interior design. She announces she’d like to do it for the holidays, but Sunday reminds her she does not need to work. Her father and grandparents get her everything her heart desires. Yet Sunday feels churlish refusing the opportunity, torn between what is best for her daughter’s future. I felt that Dolly used her mum’s inexperience against her at times, claiming that there were simply so many uses for her on site, but Sunday could never imagine them, because she’s only ever known the farm. If she refuses Dolly’s request to spend time in London with them, will it make Vita and Rollo’s offer even more attractive?
Vita isn’t above manipulation herself : ‘I’m so sorry Dolly, you know we love taking you out. And we had such fun planned in London. But…’
Sunday doesn’t know whether she can or should deny her daughter these experiences. It might help her get on in life. Should she be supporting her daughter to reach for something different? Should she be holding her back? However, some base instinct urges her to say no, to ban the trip and keep Dolly home for the summer, knowing this could backfire completely if their offer is benign, nothing more than a favour for the daughter of their friend. Sunday hasn’t had close friends before so can’t compare the situation. When Dolly receives her exam results, the dam breaks and out comes a voice Sunday has never heard before from her daughter, one filled with scorn, shame and no appreciation for her mother’s years of caring attention. Dolly sees her mother’s life as a failure and she will do anything not to be like her. The author cleverly contrasts this awful evening with the story of a fox that arrived in Sunday’s garden, a little too thin and straggly. It made it’s home under their shed for the winter and every day without fail Sunday would set milk and dog food down. In the spring the fox was sleek and flourishing because of Sunday’s steady and dutiful nature.
One of the most heartbreaking revelations for me is Sunday’s slow realisation that others have quirks and oddities, but it is still possible for people to be fond of them. To love them even. She had always thought it simply a fact of life that anyone with quirks like hers would be impossible to love, but that’s not the truth:
‘My mother could still have loved me had she chosen to’.
To befriend someone who has experienced this trauma, to make them feel loved and accepted, but then manipulate them for your own ends is evil. Yet the author keeps the reader unsure whether that’s what Vita is doing an I was constantly waiting for this ticking time bomb of a woman to explode. Yet whatever the outcome, I wasn’t sure that Vita was consciously acting this way. Her behaviour felt like a repeated pattern, possibly an enactment of her own traumas. Rollo knows though and when the truth starts to emerge he is openly affectionate to Sunday. Instead of serving up the usual air kisses, this is a hug that’s more substantial and perhaps honest. Showing a remarkable insight into his wife’s nature he tells Sunday:
‘It’s not you, darling. It’s Vee I’m afraid. She doesn’t think these things through. It might all change again by tomorrow’.
Yet he is willing to let her continue, to collude in destroying others casually and without consequence. At the very least she will offer friendship and take it away on a whim. They will simply slip into another life, with all the security their money and status gives them. Like Nick and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, Vita and Rollo are careless with other people, content to use others and leave them behind. Yet there are threads of hope in the conclusion, not least in Sunday’s ability to reflect on her own actions and feelings with more awareness. This novel is stunning, beautifully written and has such psychological complexity and insight. I loved it.
Meet the Author
Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Kent. Like her protagonist, Sunday, in ALL THE LITTLE BIRD-HEARTS, Viktoria is autistic. She has presented her doctoral research internationally, most recently speaking at Harvard University on autism and literary narrative. Viktoria lives with her husband and children on the Kent coast.
In the famous words of Phillip Larkin, ‘they fuck you up your Mum and Dad’. Reading this book was a very interesting experience and patience definitely paid off. Had I given in to my impulses and thrown the book down in frustration during the first part, I would have missed out on a great read. The story of three brothers over their lifetimes is compelling, interesting and a great study in how mental health difficulties can be passed on from one generation to the next.
The structure of the novel is what I had difficulty with at first. The first section was narrated by the eldest brother, Will. Written in short chapters, slipping between decades, we see aspects of his childhood through to the present day where he is a successful movie producer. He meets his wife Kate through his brother Brian,when she’s brought to a family dinner. They have a little girl called Daisy, but Will is much more focused on work than he is his family. We get the sense that Kate is a long suffering woman who gets more support from Brian, who is now Daisy godfather. Brian is there for the birthdays and school concerts and Daisy has a great rapport with her Uncle. Will is dismissive of Brian and his lack of ambition. He is also dismissive of Luke, despite Luke’s success as a pop star in his late teens. He is close to his Mum and through flashbacks we see she favours him, quite openly.
Luke, by contrast, really gets the brunt of their mother’s moods. He is the youngest, the weakest but soon finds success as a pop star. However, in the later fragments of his life he has times of struggle, where his mental health is poor and he turns to drink or experiments with drugs. He is an unusual child with a religious fixation to the extent where the family priest thinks he has a vocation! The other boys use his goodness against him, it gets them extra food and attention, especially from their father. There are moments where it seems his life is on track and he could be happy, but others where I wondered if he was just not meant for this world. Finally, there’s Brian the middle brother. If Will is his Mum’s favourite and Luke is doted on by his Dad, it leaves nobody for Brian. He does seem fatally dragged between the two of them. Will is very dismissive of him, even though Brian does so much for his niece. He’s not grateful that Brian stands in for him or that he looks after Luke when his mental health deteriorates. In fact their relationship becomes so destructive that other family members get caught in the crossfire.
The genius of this book is its structure. During the first part, narrated by Will, I was ready to put the book down. I couldn’t stand him. He was arrogant, self-centred and treats women appallingly. If the whole book had been his viewpoint I might have thrown it out of the window. Just when I was at the point of giving up, I saw Luke’s name across the next section and it was such a relief. As the tale goes back and forth in time and perspective we see a tiny bit more of the whole. At a Bob Dylan concert at a local castle, Will ends up in a fight and is taken to hospital with Dad, leaving Luke to follow behind. Mum is also left behind at the castle and doesn’t arrive at the hospital till late. However, through Luke’s story we learn that something terrible happened to her, something that explains so much about how she behaves. When we finally get Brian’s section we see what a lifetime of being in the middle feels like. Overlooked, unconsidered and brushed aside. We find out things we already suspected and other things that surprise and enlighten us. Every single strand of this novel teaches us that we are only ever a small part of the picture and we must step back to see the whole.
This brings me to the second line of Larkin’s poem, which is the best; ‘they do not mean to but they do’. There are parts of this novel, particularly the way Dad behaves, where genuine mistakes are made and misunderstandings occur in the same way they do with any family. However there are other situations where the damage seems deliberate, especially in their mother’s attitude to Luke, Will’s intervention in Luke’s relationship, and in the treatment of Will’s daughter Daisy towards the end of the novel. These acts are more than little cruelties. They are deliberate, potentially causing lifelong psychological disturbance. This is a complex and interesting novel that moves from one narrow perspective to give us all the pieces of the emotional jigsaw puzzle that makes up this family. Liz Nugent is such an emotionally literate writer that I can’t wait to read her next work.
Meet The Author
Liz Nugent lives and writes in Dublin, Ireland. She is an award winning writer of radio drama, children’s animation soap opera and television plays. Her second novel, Lying in Wait, is to be published in July 2016. Unusually for a writer, Liz likes neither cats nor coffee and does not own a Breton top.
Liz Nugent’s new novel Strange Sally Diamond is out on March 2nd from Sandycove.
Whenever I’ve been faced with difficulties in life, my instinct is to reach for a book that helps. It might be a self-help or nonfiction manual, it might be a novel that closely echoes my own experience, or it could be a memoir that tells a similar story from a totally different perspective. I’ve been helped by so many books over the years: Havi Carel’s Illness helped me cope with my invisible disability, several books about coercive control and psychological abuse helped me through a terrible break-up and books like Small Dogs Can Save Your Life and The Year of Magical Thinking helped me negotiate my first year of being a widow. Books have helped me understand the world in so many different ways, so I was fascinated with the concept of Chloe Hooper’s beautiful book Bedtime Story. In the same way I’d always reached for literature, Chloe Hooper had turned to children’s stories to hopefully find a way through a terrible situation.
Let me tell you a story…
When Chloe Hooper’s partner was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive illness, she had to find a way to tell their two young sons. By instinct, she turned to their bookshelves. Could the news be broken as a bedtime tale? Is there a perfect book to prepare children for loss? Hooper embarks on a quest to find what practical lessons children’s literature—with its innocent orphans and evil adults, magic, monsters and anthropomorphic animals—can teach about grief and resilience in real life.
From the Brothers Grimm to Frances Hodgson Burnett and Tolkien and Dahl—all of whom suffered childhood bereavements—she follows the breadcrumbs of the world’s favourite authors, searching for the deep wisdom in their books and lives. Both memoir and manual, Bedtime Story is stunningly illustrated by the New York Times award-winning Anna Walker. In an age of worldwide uncertainty, here is a profound and moving exploration of the dark and light of storytelling.
I was first drawn by the look of this book and felt really lucky to receive such a beautiful proof copy. However, it wasn’t long before it was the beauty of the words that seduced me. Hooper manages to convey so much in her choice of words. She talks about childhood bedtimes and how ‘you lie in the fresh anarchy of the dark’ once reading is over and it’s time for the lights to go out. I loved the use of the word ‘anarchy’ because that’s exactly how it feels when the light goes off and the ordinary shapes of furniture and well worn toys become something completely different. The darkness allows them to metamorphose into whatever horror they like. It reminded me of childhood trips to the toilet in the middle of the night, when flushing the toilet and turning off the bathroom light would leave me momentarily without sight or hearing. I would run down the hallway on my tiptoes and leap from the threshold of my bedroom onto the bed, just in case whatever lurked under there grabbed hold of my ankle.
I completely understood the author’s need to move into researching children’s stories at a time of such great loss. When I lost my husband I was writing about my experience, but found myself veering off towards the Victorian form of mourning with all it’s rules and regulations. Reading about Queen Victoria’s loss of Prince Albert in a non-fiction format felt safer than reading a novel. It was all facts and couldn’t suddenly ambush me with emotion. The author was obviously looking for answers, but I wondered if she too was looking for reassurance in the dark. Trying to find a correct or right way to do something that is unimaginable. There is something strangely comforting about reading that someone else has faced this. In fact if you think about it this wre ads a mot ptyuuere are a lot of orphans and lost children in literature. Anne of Green Gables, Pip in Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights – it was a more common experience to loo your parents in the 19th Century. In fact many of the authors themselves suffered childhood bereavements so perhaps their storytelling was a way of writing out that experience from the safety of adulthood, trying out what might have happened to them in that situation, or perhaps exploring their greatest fears at the time. So maybe from these stories there are clues to the better ways of helping a child through the experience, a way in which ‘the right words are an incantation, a spell of hope for the future’.
When working as a writing therapist with people who’ve had life-changing diagnoses, one of the first exercises I do with people is to imagine their illness is a monster. They must of course think about how it looks, but also how it smells and the texture of it’s skin or fur. How does it move across the room and if it came in now what would it do? Would it sit, talk to the group or slink off to a corner and stay aloof or separate? How does it behave with them? What is it’s personality and it’s drive? This is a fascinating exercise and brings so many different responses to the surface to talk about within the group. Of course this is only how we perceive it to be. Our illness and our symptoms, don’t care about us. We are irrelevant to them. It’s what their presence does to us that’s important, how we respond to it – anxiety, fear, dread, anger. Hooper writes about monsters within narratives in interesting ways. On one hand they are amoral, unstoppable and all powerful. As Hooper writes, her husband’s cancer cells are completely indifferent to him and what kind of person he is. Similarly, the Basilisk doesn’t care that it’s Harry Potter he’s trying to eat, because in the monster’s world Harry isn’t the poor, orphaned, centre of the universe, he’s just a meal. On the other hand, the monster can be fashioned from what lurks within ourselves such as the tree monster in Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. This monster is seemingly fashioned from Conor’s mother’s illness, but actually he isn’t there for her. He’s there for Conor. While adults feed him platitudes and half-truths, the monster is straight with him and confronts him with a terrible truth, so awful that Conor can’t bear to face it. He’s finally able to tell the monster of his terrible feelings, that he’s so tired of his mother’s illness that he wants her ordeal to end. He is ashamed of feeling this, but in saying it he becomes free. It shows the desperate need for an outlet, away from the parents, where the child can express everything they feel, even the negative and shameful narratives they tell themselves.
If all this sounds powerful, thit is. What I love about this book and the reason I want to use it with clients, is that it doesn’t sugar coat anything. It’s not syrupy sweet, but tells iiīiiooooôoothe truth about trying to live while potentially dying. Anticipating the death of someone you love is like a slow torture and Hooper doesn’t compromise. This is about that daily struggle to be a family and continue to make sense of a world that has suddenly become scary, hostile and uncertain. The love she has for her children won’t let her lie to them, but somehow they find solace in the stories and imaginary worlds she studies. There’s a way in which it teaches them how to accept that our time here and our time together is finite. Or, to quote from The Fault in our Stars, some infinities are bigger then others. I found Hooper’s narrative utterly unique and incredibly beautiful, full of strength, a resilience within the grief. She tells us that as soon as we describe something that’s happened to us in words, we’ve placed it a step or two further away, in order to examine it and understand it better. That’s what’s happening throughout the book and we go along that personal journey with her and her family. It’s such a privilege. However, it’s also a book that treasures literature and shows us how important stories are to our culture. When we bring our children up with stories, we’re sharing something imaginative and magical but we’re also equipping them for everything life can throw at them, because without stories we have no way to make meaning of our existence and experiences.
Out now from Scribner.
Meet the Author.
Chloe Hooper’s most recent book is the bestselling The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire. The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island won the Victorian, New South Wales, West Australian and Queensland Premiers’ Literary Awards, as well as the John Button Prize for Political Writing, and a Ned Kelly Award for crime writing. She is also the author of two acclaimed novels, A Child’s Book of True Crime and The Engagement. She lives in Melbourne with her partner and her two sons.
This month I’m supporting my fellow Squad Podders by highlighting writers of romance, whether that is their specific genre or just a part of their books mingled with fantasy, humour or mystery. If you want completely escapist romance with a side order of sexy, rich, characters cavorting around the English countryside then Jilly Cooper is your author. My first introduction to Jilly Cooper was finding her earlier 1970’s books on mum’s bookshelves. These weren’t the romances, but the humorous and witty digs at society found in her books on class and feminism. I remember very clearly my mum reading to me from one of them and as a working class family we found the middle classes utterly tragic so she would read descriptions of the Teale family. I’ll never forget Jen Teale who was so demure she wore six pairs of knickers. When mum was a bit low we would get a book down and I would read or act out the funnier bits and we’d all fall about laughing. It wasn’t until I was in sixth form that I encountered her handsome hero, Rupert Campbell-Black. One girl had brought Rivals into the common room and was reading out the filthy bits – ‘tit fault’ could be heard ringing round the tennis courts for weeks that summer term. I bought a copy of Riders and realised her work had so much story, as well as those famous rude bits. What I loved about Riders was the description of Penscombe and it’s jumble of treasures, dogs, books and grounds full of beautiful horses. Then as the rivalry became apparent between Rupert the school bully and his victim, the gypsy Jake Lovell I was completely caught up in the story. Her characters were well fleshed out and Rupert’s disastrous marriage to the American hunt saboteur Helen, was a fascinating clash of cultures, class and personality. I was soon utterly gripped by the world of showjumping, the bed hopping and the relationships sacrificed to ambition.
I think characters are a strength of Cooper’s even though some are almost caricatures and her rendering of Northern accents is hilariously wide of the mark. Each book tends to have a virtuous or kind woman – Taggie O’Hara, Kitty Rannaldini, Daisy or Lucy – who are perhaps not conventionally attractive, slightly shy and a bit downtrodden. It gives us someone to root for. On the other hand there are absolute horrors as well like narcissistic opera diva Hermione Harefield, the wicked but talented Roberto Rannaldini, or the chaotic and faithless Janey Lloyd-Foxe. It doesn’t matter that they’re not realistic, this is a romp through the upper classes – a part of society that Jilly Cooper knows more about than me. There’s always a lusty man to fall in love with too, someone tortured and secretive like the director Tristan de Montigny in Score, a bumbling innocent with looks to die for like Lysander Hawksley in The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous, or the gorgeous Luke Alderton in Polo, who loves the spoiled young polo player Perdita even when she chooses his brother Red. From showjumping, to television, to gigolos, polo players, orchestras, film making and horse racing Jilly takes us through each world with great knowledge and detail, often making the animals just as strong in character as the humans. I’m particularly fond of the labradors Mavis and Badger, and Taggie’s faithful little mongrel Gertrude.
Then there are the romances! There are several in every book and of course the over-arching love story of all – Rupert and Taggie. In Riders I felt so sad for Fenella whose hero worship of Billy Lloyd-Foxe becomes an unrequited crush, then a doomed love affair. In Polo I was rooting for Daisy, the mother of our heroine, who had been so focused on looking after others that she couldn’t believe the dashing polo player Ricky France-Lynch would be interested in her. I followed the fortunes of Rupert and Helen’s daughter Tabitha very closely. She’s impulsive and makes a passionate, but very difficult marriage to Isa Lovell, the eldest son of Rupert’s enemy Jake Lovell. Any chance she had of a more stable and loving relationship, through the novel Score particularly, had me keeping my fingers crossed. Of course it’s Rivals where the best and most beguiling love story begins and to see the bed-hopping Rupert Campbell-Black falling head over heels for the shy, dyslexic and unconventionally beautiful Taggie was deeply enjoyable. I was a similar age to Taggie when reading Rivals and still very romantic. Now I look at their relationship a little differently, but every few years I re-read a couple of the novels and I still feel a little starry eyed about them. They pop up in all the novels after Rivals and their relationship is probably the most successful in Cooper’s fictional Gloucestershire.
Cooper gives the reader a glimpse into a glamorous and wealthy world most of us would never know about. The hotels are 5 star, the fashion is designer, and the travel is first class. This is a world of elite sport and the game of kings – yes the Prince of Wales does pop up in Polo. There’s the world of classical music following the Rutshire orchestra in both Appassionata and Score, where the countryside becomes a backdrop for a twentieth century update to Don Giovanni. Pandora takes us into the art world and her latest Jump and Mount we’re back with horses, but in a horse-racing capacity rather than show jumping. Her only mis-steps for me are when she steps outside of this privileged world and tries to write about the working classes or a Northern character. Her book Wicked focuses on a struggling state school being mentored by the local public school where some of our usual suspects pop up, such as Rupert and Taggie Campbell Black’s children. I found her working class and city dwelling characters stereotypical and I inwardly cringed to such an extent I didn’t keep the book. Watch out for the accent of George Hungerford in Score for an example of how Northerners speak too. These are small quibbles though in a series of novels full of humour, bedroom romps, glamour, money and total escapism. The countryside is stunning and characters live in the most picturesque surroundings you’ll feel you’ve been on a holiday. Mainly though you’ll keep coming back for the love stories: hoping that the plump, bespectacled Kitty Rannaldini will escape the clutches of her evil husband with the handsome Lysander Hawksley; whether dog loving, shy, make-up artist Lucy will ever be noticed by the glamorous and mercurial Tristan de Montigny. Cooper uses all of the romantic conventions to her advantage. There are always obstacles to the couple’s love, distractions and conventions that can’t be crossed. There might be an age barrier, a man whose a confirmed bachelor, families that are locked into a bitter feud or a difficult marriage to negotiate. There are so many of these obstacles, that you’ll wait with your heart in your mouth as Taggie drives to collect Rupert Campbell-Black from his trip aboard, hoping desperately that he’ll overlook them and let her fall into his arms.
Meet the Author
Jilly Cooper is a journalist, author and media superstar. The author of many number one bestselling novels, she lives in Gloucestershire.
She has been awarded honorary doctorates by the Universities of Gloucestershire and Anglia Ruskin, and won the inaugural Comedy Women in Print lifetime achievement award in 2019. She was appointed CBE in 2018 for services to literature and charity.
I read this in two long bursts – one of which started at 3am. It’s a book I couldn’t put down because all I wanted was these two people back together. The harsh realities of grief and lifelong family rifts are well drawn by the author and completely believable. All of these people are trying to move forward despite their lives missing a beat one day on a country road, where a split second decision has lifelong consequences. This book explores grief, loss, loyalty, loneliness and the eventual incredible ability the human heart has to heal.
Sarah has a 7 day whirlwind romance with Eddie. They meet by chance on a country road while Sarah is visiting her parents. She thinks Eddie just might be the one. But, Eddie goes away on holiday and she never hears from him again. Is Eddie a heartless playboy who never intended to call? Did Sarah do something wrong? Or has something terrible happened to him? Instead of listening to friends and writing this off as a one night stand, Sarah begins to obsess and is determined to find the answer. Every clue she has comes to a dead end and she is in danger of completely losing her dignity. As her time back home in the UK starts to run out, Sarah looks for clues to track Eddie down. What she hears is confusing her further. His friend doesn’t give the simple answer, that Eddie has moved on, but gives her a warning; if she knows what’s best for her, she needs to stop looking for Eddie.
Walsh has successfully intertwined a love story with a mystery. I veered between wondering if Sarah was becoming irrational and willing her to succeed. Interspersed with the narrative are beautiful letters of love and loss addressed to the writer’s sister, affectionately nicknamed ‘Hedgehog’. The letter writer’s sister died when they were young, but we don’t know what happened or who the letter writer is. If Sarah is the author of the letters does this loss have something to do with the warning she’s been given? Is her sister the key – not just to Eddie’s disappearance, but to why Eddie was on that particular stretch of road on that day?
I quickly became invested in Sarah and Eddie’s story. I think we’ve all been subjected to the watched phone that never rings and how crazy it can make us. It could have made me dislike Eddie early on, but for some reason I never did. I’m definitely a hopeless romantic so I seemed to accept Sarah’s hope that this could still work out. The other characters in the novel are also well-written and compelling. I’m a therapist so I was particularly interested in Eddie’s mother and her mental ill health. I think her symptoms and the way she manipulated Eddie showed a streak of narcissism. She finds it impossible to see this situation from his point of view, only how it might her. Anything that threatens their dynamic as carer and patient is a huge threat to her and she responds with emotional blackmail and hostility. Eddie is as much a prisoner of her mental ill health as she is. I also had empathy for Sarah’s friend Jenny who is struggling to conceive and undergoes IVF treatment to the point of financial ruin. Her character probably leapt out at me because I’m also not able to have children, and know how difficult it can be to come to terms with. Her stoicism and determination to support her friend in the face of her own loss is very moving.
I stayed up until 2am to finish the book, because I had everything crossed that the mystery would be explained and these two people could move forward together. To different degrees, all the novels characters are imprisoned by the past and losses they can’t accept. My husband died when he was 42 and I was 35. It’s like a chasm opened up and I had to choose between staying on one side forever, with the past and my feelings of loss and fear. Or I could choose to jump over that chasm into a new future. I never forget what happened or the love I have for Jerzy, but twelve years later I have a wonderful partner and two beautiful stepdaughters. Thankfully, I had the bravery to move forward knowing I can’t lose my memories of the past, but I still have a future full of possibilities I never imagined. That’s what the characters in the novel are trying to do. Grief is different for everyone and there are always tensions between those who are trying to heal and those who can’t imagine healing because it feels like a betrayal. Rosie Walsh draws these different threads together beautifully, creating a bittersweet novel that captures the incredible ability the human heart has to heal.
Meet the Author
Rosie Walsh is the internationally bestselling author of two novels, the global smash hit THE MAN WHO DIDN’T CALL, and – new for 2022 – THE LOVE OF MY LIFE, a heart-wrenching, keep-you-up-all-night emotional thriller, which was an instant New York Times bestseller and stayed in the German top ten for several weeks.
Rosie Walsh lives on a medieval farm in Devon, UK, with her partner and two young children, after years living and travelling all over the world as a documentary producer and writer.
The Man Who Didn’t Call (UK) / Ghosted (US) was her first book under her own name, and was published around the world in 2018, going on to be a multimillion bestseller.
Prior to writing under her own name she wrote four romantic comedies under the pseudonym Lucy Robinson. When she isn’t parenting or writing, Rosie can be found walking on Dartmoor, growing vegetables and throwing raves for adults and children in leaking barns.
Rosie’s new novel The Love of my Life is another heartbreaking romance, mixed with an addictive mystery you’ll be begging for one more chapter.
I have held you every night for ten years and I didn’t even know your name. We have a child together. A dog, a house. Who are you?
Emma loves her husband Leo and their young daughter Ruby: she’d do anything for them. But almost everything she’s told them about herself is a lie. And she might just have got away with it, if it weren’t for her husband’s job. Leo is an obituary writer and Emma is a well-known marine biologist, so, when she suffers a serious illness, Leo copes by doing what he knows best – reading and writing about her life. But as he starts to unravel her past, he discovers the woman he loves doesn’t really exist. Even her name is fictitious.
When the very darkest moments of Emma’s past life finally emerge, she must somehow prove to Leo that she really is the woman he always thought she was . . . But first, she must tell him about the love of her other life.
Available now in hardback and on Kindle, but due out in paperback in July 2023.
I was enticed into our heroine Anya’s world for two main reasons: Glasgow is one of my favourite cities and I too had a back up man. My best friend Elliot and I made a pact when we were moving on from sixth form. He didn’t know that I was head over heels in love with him, but he was my best friend and I didn’t want to ruin anything (we did ruin things a few years later, after university, but that’s another story). So we decided that if both of us were single at the age of 40, we’d get married. Life takes strange turns and although we were still in touch, Elliot had a long term partner and three children by then and I was a widow. We’ve all had a break up or other difficult life event and been overcome with a bout of nostalgia. Sometimes what has happened to us has been so scary and life changing, it makes more sense to lapse into the past, revisiting times and people who feel safe. We’re always doing this through rose tinted spectacles forgetting the negative aspects of the relationship or memory. So I could really understand Anya’s reasoning, especially after the shock she gets on a visit to Sunday lunch at her boyfriend’s mother’s home. In fact it’s on their way home, as they drop into a Shell garage, where Callum ends their four year relationship. Because he hadn’t wanted to upset his mum by doing it sooner. So Anya is facing a massive life change. The couple live together in Callum’s flat and while he can find somewhere to stay for a few days until she gets herself together, he will want her to move out by the end of the week. What else can go wrong?
Glasgow’s west end is a beautiful setting, giving both atmosphere and warmth to the story. I love the beautiful Victorian stone homes in the area and I have imagined myself living in one of them, but they’re pricey and only for the city’s professional classes. People like Anya’s cousin Claire. It’s her sister Georgie who suggests that Claire might want a lodger. Georgie gets on better with Claire than Anya does, because Anya finds her a bit stuck up and joyless. She also dislikes her creepy partner Richard. So once her best friend Paddy has helped her move to a single mattress in Claire’s back bedroom, Anya lies there wondering if life could get any worse? Then the next day she loses her job. As she’s going through her badly packed boxes she finds her old year book from school and a note from Euan. In her final year of school, Euan and Anya had a casual connection that could perhaps have become something more had he not been going away to university. They were never officially together, so they didn’t really break up, but they did make a pact. If they are both single when they are thirty years old they will make a go of it together. In a wave of nostalgia, borne out of feeling her life has fallen apart, Anya starts to search for Euan when she’s surprised by a message from a mutual friend. Jamie has also been looking for Euan, maybe they could join forces?
For me, this romcom worked because it is so much more than a simple boy meets girl. This period of time is transformative for Anya in so many different ways. She learns so much about herself and for me that is the most interesting part of the story. She and sister Georgie live in Glasgow with their parents living out in a suburb of the city. Anya and her mother have a spiky relationship because she has very set ideas about how life should be. Anya’s favourite pastime is cooking, in fact she finds that in the week where she’s alone in Callum’s flat, the night she cooks from scratch is when she feels most relaxed. For a little while she’s been running a page on Instagram called anyaeatstoomuch and her friend Paddy suggests that she could develop this hobby into a business. So she starts to look into turning it into a catering company, but in the meantime her mum isn’t going to let her sit around feeling sorry for herself. She finds her a job looking after the granddaughters of a woman she knows, their mother is working as a beauty influencer. These terrible twins are brilliant comic relief, being both unruly and sneaky, but subdued by Anya’s incredible food. It could be a complete waste of her time, or it could provide opportunities.
This is just one of the things that Anya has to learn. She can’t continue to drift and let life happen to her, she has to take control to get the life she wants. There was a sense of mystery too, in the search for Euan and the dead ends they find but I also wondered about Jamie. His interest legitimises Anya’s search, just when everyone else is telling her she’s behaving like a crazy person. I could understand her need to look back when everything else is falling apart, but what was Jamie’s reason for looking for Euan? I was also concerned about Claire’s fiancé Richard. He’s very furtive, lurking around corners and exercising his ability to soundlessly appear in the room. Their relationship also teaches Anya something important, just because someone’s life looks perfect it doesn’t mean it is. We all show a very edited version of life on social media and the reality is often very different. Another lesson is that having everything you want – the fiancé, the West End house, the great career – doesn’t necessarily mean you’re happy. It’s all these bits of learning and the potential growth Anya could make in her emotional life and career that really make this story. I was rooting her her to make the right choices, survive the terrible twins and forge an exciting life for herself, whether a man is involved or not.
Published 19th January 2023 by Penguin
Meet The Author
Phoebe Luckhurst is a journalist and author, who has written for publications including the Evening Standard, ES Magazine, ELLE, Grazia, Sunday Times Style, Guardian, Telegraph and Grazia. The Lock In is her first novel and this is her second.
On the last night in October 1999 the clocks went back, and Ella and Will’s love began. A teenage Ella sat around a bonfire drinking with her future husband and her oldest friend Cole. As Ella wandered away from the group, she found herself leaning against a derelict archway before passing out. The next day, Ella remembered fractured images of a conversation with a woman in a green coat and red scarf but dismissed it as a drunken dream.
Twenty-three years later, with her marriage to Will in trouble, and Cole spiralling out of control, Ella opens a gift which turns her life upside down: a green coat and red scarf. When she looks in the mirror, the woman from the archway is reflected back at her. As the last Sunday in October arrives, Ella is faced with a choice. Would she choose a different life, if she could do it again?
This was an interesting read from Emma Cooper, looking at how the course of our whole life can change from very small decisions and the effects of these changes on our long term relationships. Ella is married to Will with two children and a big birthday approaching when she has a strange sense of life coming full circle. She opens her birthday presents to find a coat, scarf and brooch combination she recognises. Twenty-three years earlier at a party, she strolled away from the fireside to avoid watching her crush Will kissing another girl and saw a woman wearing exactly these clothes. It was almost as if the woman was on the other side of a mirror, visible but unable to be heard. Even though Ella can’t hear her, she knows that whatever she’s trying to tell her is a warning. Now she knows that woman was definitely her future self and she can’t help but wonder exactly what she was trying to warn her about. Life has definitely changed suddenly, because as their youngest left the family home for university, Will suddenly dropped the bombshell that he was leaving. Ella knows they’ve been drifting, in fact it runs deeper than that, Ella knows that Will would not have chosen the life they’ve had. She can pinpoint every surprise and life event thrown their way that derailed the life Will would have chosen, travelling the world playing guitar in a rock band. Ella has always known that she loved Will more than he loved her, so perhaps he need to spend some time discovering what he wants the rest of his life to look like.
Emma Cooper’s last novel was an absolute tearjerker and I really loved it. She gets that everyday drudgery that is part of being a family and here she portrayed beautifully how romance is hard to maintain when there is illness, two children to look after, family crises and those little curveballs that life likes to throw into the mix every so often. Cooper structures her book around these moments in Will and Ella’s lives together, such as her sudden pregnancy in Paris that she feels derailed Will’s music career. What she forgets is that Will did have a choice too and it was a joint decision to get married and have their baby. The fact that Will was fired from the band as a result was a terrible thing to happen, but wasn’t Ella’s fault. The flashbacks worked well in explaining the present day, from Ella’s perspective but Ella isn’t the only one in the relationship and I wondered if these two had ever properly communicated with each other. The problem with not communicating is that Will is also labouring under a misapprehension; he knows that he’s always loved Ella more than she loved him and now, with both children gone, it’s time for her to think about her choices and perhaps right a wrong. Will has felt in competition with Ella’s best friend Cole for many years, even the first day he met Ella’s family Cole was already there and part of the furniture. When Ella was struggling with depression, Will was just starting his career as a music teacher and simply couldn’t be there as much as he would have liked. Cole was there, burping and changing both babies, bringing chocolate and endless energy and literally propping Ella up. He has loved Ella since they were kids and he’s the first person Ella calls when something’s wrong – like when Will walks out the door 23 years later. Cole knows that Ella loves Will, even in his worst moments dealing with family trauma and his own alcoholism he knows Will and Ella should be together. He knows the power of Will’s charisma, because he’s felt it himself. In fact he and Will have a difficult history; Will’s brother drowned when he was left alone by a river, Will was saving Cole who had jumped in. This past leaves an uneasy feeling between them and has Ella desperately trying to please them both.
I enjoyed the carefree period Will and Ella have in France with the band. Will is offered the chance of playing guitar with a band and the couple rent a small apartment where they can have privacy and live outside of that hotel environment. It takes several mornings of Ella throwing up for a neighbour to point out she might perhaps be pregnant. The thought has never entered her head, but the neighbour is right. They expect their idyllic interlude to carry on, but once they announce their news and intention to get married, Will is summoned by the band manager and sacked. Young girls like to fantasise about their rock stars and married with a baby isn’t the look he wants for the band. So the couple return to Britain and to a life that looks a little more conventional. The author really doesn’t sugar coat the experience of parenthood. I was there in that living room with Ella, dealing with a two year old and a baby. It felt dark, oppressive and a total contrast to the freedom she had in France. With Will having to put in the long hours to support his new family, Ella feels like she’s doing this alone. So when friend Cole steps in to help it feels like a lifeline. He notices that Ella is desperately unwell and it’s his insight into his friend and his willingness to help that did make me waver on whether Will really was the right person for her. I don’t think I ever fully bonded with Will as a character. I didn’t know him in the same way as Cole or Ella and I think this was to some extent about the author’s description of him. He was so good looking and even Cole admits he’s the archetypal romantic leading man – he’s the man the girl should get. I didn’t know whether the author was trying to subvert the genre and have Ella realise that the less than perfect Cole, with all his issues, is the right man for her. In fact I was unsure of what would happen right up to the very end. This is a romantic read with an edge of reality, but maybe that makes it a more contemporary fairytale.
Meet The Author
EMMA COOPER is the author of highly acclaimed book club fiction novels and is known for mixing humour with darker emotional themes. Her debut, The Songs of Us, was snapped up in multiple pre-empts and auctions and was short-listed for the RNA contemporary novel of the year award. Her work has since been translated into seven different languages.
Emma has always wanted to be a writer – ever since childhood, she’s been inventing characters (her favourite being her imaginary friend ‘Boot’) and is thrilled that she now gets to use this imagination to bring to life all of her creations. She is now also an editor for Jericho Writers, where she has worked with traditionally published authors, as well as new aspiring writers. Emma spends her spare time writing novels, drinking wine and watching box-sets with her partner of twenty-eight years, who still makes her smile every day.
It was a privilege to have the chance to read this beautiful historical romance. Iona Grey has set her novel in the decade post WW1, where a new generation are coping with both a legacy of loss and parents that are still stuck in the hierarchical society of the Edwardian period. Selina Lennox is one of the ‘Bright Young People’, followed by the press from party to party, and determined to the live the full life that their parents, and especially older siblings, have missed out on. Her family are part of an ailing aristocracy that still has its property but is running short on money. Her elder sister is making an advantageous marriage and since the death of their brother in the war they have the pressure of producing a male heir. Selina is being steered towards the heir of a ruby mining business situated in Burma. Rupert is a war veteran, and it is possibly active service that has made him so stiff and taciturn. Selina finds him too serious and prefers the company of her friends and the social whirl of extravagant parties thrown during the season. One night, while careering through London on a treasure hunt, the car she is travelling in hits a cat. Selina can’t leave the poor creature and is horrified to see her friends disappearing into the night, leaving her in a garden square somewhere in Bloomsbury.
Young, struggling artist Lawrence Weston chances upon Selina and offers his help. They climb into the garden and give the cat a proper burial. Selina is drawn by this dark haired young man but also knows she is taking a huge risk disappearing at night with a stranger who isn’t from within her social circle. Lawrence is transfixed by Selina’s golden beauty and feels an instant connection. He knows she is far above him and her family would be horrified. He lives in a shared house and rents a studio where he paints portraits of the aristocracy’s lost sons of war in all their military splendour. This pays the bills, but he would love to be a photographer and as yet no one sees this as art. Realistically, he has no chance with Selina but can’t seem to stay away despite receiving warnings from most of his friends.
Interspersed with this is the story of Selina’s daughter Alice in the years before WW2. Alice lives back on the family estate and is being looked after by Polly who was Selina’s maid. Alice’s grandparents are still in residence, living the values of a bygone age. Miranda has now given birth to Archie, the all important heir for the estate. Selina is in Burma with her husband and we see their journey in a series of letters she writes to Alice. They clearly have a very loving relationship, so it seems strange that Alice is hidden away in the cold nursery corridor? I kept wondering why, if she loves her daughter as much as she seems to, would Selina leave her with a family who show her no affection? Alice has been sent a treasure hunt from her mother and Polly gives her the clues to follow. Solving the clues takes her to different parts of the estate and, in her mother’s words, should tell her how she came to be. This is how Alice comes to know and love the gardens, especially the deserted Chinese House with its old gramophone. What link could they hold to Selina’s past and Alice’s future?
Iona Grey has created a beautiful novel here, filled with moments of joy and sadness. For me, the meaning of the title encompasses both the historical period and the love story at the heart of the novel. The 1920s do stand as a ‘glittering hour’ – a moment of extravagance, partying and glamour, between two world wars. The generation who were young in that period defied the death that had stalked the previous generation in the trenches and were determined to enjoy life while they could. For Lawrence, Selina is his glittering hour, a moment of pure love and beauty that burns bright but can’t burn forever. Grey shows what happens when we dare to break away from the boundaries and societal rules of our class and how the reverberations from this can last for several generations. The love may not last, but the memories can sustain us for a lifetime.
Out now from Simon & Schuster U.K.
Meet The Author
Iona Grey studied English Language and Literature at the University of Manchester, where she also met her future husband on the last night of her three years there. Throwing herself headlong into marriage and babies, she worked (inefficiently, for the most part) in a series of part time jobs before a chance meeting with bestselling novelist Penny Jordan set her back on the path to her teenage dream of writing unashamedly romantic fiction.
She lives in Cheshire with her husband and three daughters. She is the award-winning author of Letters to the Lost, and her new book The Glittering Hour went on sale December 10, 2019. She is currently working on her third novel.