The Walk Home – Rachel Seiffert

The boy turned up with no work boots, just a pair of old trainers, and a holdall slung across his back, almost as big as he was. Jozef looked at him, doubtful, on the doorstep; at his red hair and freckles, and the way he squinted in the summer light, the June sun already up above the rooftops…

‘Romek tellt me tae come straight here. He said you’d pay me.’

Jozef gives the boy a job on the development he’s managing and allows him to sleep there while the job’s on, although he’s not entirely comfortable with this arrangement – it raises questions about the boy’s family. But Josef’s got family problems of his own, his wife, Ewa, has returned to Gdańsk and he doesn’t know whether he’ll be welcome when he’s finally made enough money to return.

The story of the boy on the building site is told alongside that of a family living on the Drumchapel estate in Glasgow. While the building site section of the novel is set in the present day, the Drumchapel story is told from a day in the early 1990s when the youngest son, Graham, travels to Tyrone to play the drum for a band on an Orange Walk.

Graham was eighteen and rubbish at talking to females. Even some he’d known years like his brothers’ wives. He looked like a grown man, only he wasn’t yet; he was just all shoulders and neck, wide forehead, and no talk. Everyone in the flute band was aware of this, so when they were out in the Ulster wilds, it was Graham they dispatched to get the lunch, because it was a girl he’d have to speak to on the burger van: a fine one.

On this occasion he manages to talk to her well enough to end up have sex with her twice – once on the track behind the pub they’re drinking in after the walk and again in the hallway of her parents’ house. When he returns home, they speak over the ‘phone every few hours. Six weeks later, Graham goes to fetch a seventeen-year-old, pregnant Lindsey to live in Drumchapel.

The baby, Stevie, grows up to be the boy in the other half of the story. Seiffert tells the story of his time on the development with the Poles alongside that of his childhood, culminating in the reader discovering why he left home and why he hasn’t contacted them since arriving back in Glasgow.

The chapters about Stevie’s childhood focus on the whole family – Graham and Lindsey but also Graham’s parents, Malky and Brenda, Brenda’s brother Eric and their deceased father Papa Robert. Seiffert considers the things which cause ruptures in families. In the case of this family, heavily rooted in working class Scotland, religion and the politics of Northern Ireland – where both Lindsey and Papa Robert were born and grew up – play a part.

Brenda, and later Lindsey, hates Graham playing in the flute band while Papa Robert and Brenda’s other brothers disowned Eric when he moved from the estate and married a Catholic woman. While Stevie’s family clearly do their best for him, his home life is steeped in tension – his mother and father disagree about moving to a new place, away from Drumchapel; they disagree about the band; his Uncle Eric tells him religious stories and draws pictures of Glasgow containing religious symbols and ideas as he struggles to come to terms with his relationship with Papa Robert.

One of the things that’s impressive about the novel is that Seiffert centres it on family relations and while the themes of religion, sectarianism and class are present, they are never allowed to overwhelm the story. This is not a novel about religion, it’s a novel about a family, their relationship with each other and their connection to the place(s) they come from. Brenda sums it up in a phone call to Lindsey’s father not long after she’s come to live with them:

‘Lindsey’s been away before now, and she’s always come home again.’

It gave her heart that he could say that. Even if he spoke like his girl was a dead weight. A disappointment. It didn’t seem right to talk like that, not to someone he’d never met, not about his own child. But Brenda knew the weight of her own boys: much as she loved them, there were times they felt like four great stones. So she said:

‘They keep us fae slipping away wae the tide, anyhow.’

And Lindsey’s Dad managed a laugh, tight and short:

‘Aye well. That’s one way to look at it.’

Seiffert shows the damage that family members can inflict on each other without judging or stereotyping. Her characters are rounded individuals with varying views and ways of living. Her ear for the Glaswegian accent, successfully translated onto the page adds to the sense that this group of people could well be alive, waiting for Stevie’s return as I type.

The Walk Home has also been reviewed by fellow shadow prize judge, Eric. Click on his name for his review.

Thanks to Virago for the review copy

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night – Heather O’Neill

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night tells the story of twenty-year-old Nouschka Tremblay and her twin brother, Nicholas. As the novel begins, Nouschka has signed up for night school to try and complete her high school diploma – both her and Nicholas dropped out of school before completing their qualifications.

“You were better in school than he was. He was always antagonizing the teachers. It’s good to do something by yourself. I used to beat you to stop you from sleeping together in the same bed, but you still did. You ate out of the same plates. You wore the same clothes. You said the same things at the same time. You took baths together. It was disgusting.”

When we were very little, I don’t even think that Nicholas and I were aware that we were different people. It was only when we started dating that we were able to spend any time away from each other. In these heightened experiences we were distracted from missing each other.

Brought up by their grandparents after their mother left them on her doorstep, Nouschka and Nicholas are the children of famous seventies Québécois folk singer Étienne Tremblay.

Outside of Québec, nobody had even heard of him, naturally. Québec needed stars badly. The more they had, the better argument they had for having their own culture and separating from Canada.

Tremblay’s a ‘bad boy’: in and out of prison, claims to have slept with hundreds of women. He took his kids on stage and on television talk shows with him so Nouschka and Nicholas became famous at a very young age too. He continues to wander in and out of their lives when he feels like it, bringing a film crew with him who wants to make a documentary about the family.

Nicholas makes his living as a thief holding up small business with no more than thirty dollars in the till. It’s a life he decided upon after fathering a child, Pierrot, when he was fifteen. Nouschka describes his life of crime as ‘an attempt to be responsible’, Nicholas being unable to make enough money to pay child support. Although he attempts to have a better relationship with his child than his own father had with him, it’s clearly not going well.

Two things drive the plot, the build-up to the Québec referendum on separating from Canada and the twins’, but particularly Nouschka’s, attempts to come to terms with being abandoned by their mother.

The story’s interesting, although possibly overlong. Nouschka and Nicholas’ lives are so far removed from the average person’s – more bohemian than anything – that it feels quite voyeuristic, as though the reader has become one of the people whom Étienne Tremblay wanted to parade his kids in front of.

It’s some of the lines that made this book for me though. There are moments where O’Neill expresses an idea perfectly, like this one just after Nouschka and Nicholas have argued about their mother:

We didn’t say anything to each other after that. We just lay there with our hearts beating. There is nothing as frustrating as being consumed with rage over someone and knowing that you aren’t even on their mind. You want your enemy to be engaged in a struggle until the death with you. Otherwise you are fighting yourself. I mean we are all essentially only in wars against ourselves, but we don’t like it to be so painfully obvious.

An interesting novel about familial relationships and the impact they can have on your lives. O’Neill finishes with different conclusions for different characters showing that while some of the behaviour and interactions may be recognisable, each experience is unique.

 

Thanks to Quercus for the review copy.

The Life of a Banana – PP Wong

Xing Li and her fifteen-year-old brother, Lai Ker are forced to live with their grandmother following the death of their mother on Xing Li’s twelfth birthday. Her mother panicked after realising she had no candles for Xing Li’s birthday cake and decided she needed to get some before Xing Li’s grandmother, Auntie Mei and Uncle Ho arrived. She wanted everything to be ‘super perfect’ says Xing Li.

On the way to buy the candles, Xing Li’s mum passed the Xiong Mao Chinese restaurant where she was often given free food in exchange for Lai Ker tutoring the chef’s son in Maths. Xing Li’s mum is embarrassed about the size of the portions she’s offered though and it resulted in a tug of war over whether she should accept them or not.

Mama died because it was my birthday.

If it weren’t my birthday, Mama wouldn’t have gone out to get the candles. She wouldn’t have passed Andy Cheung’s restaurant and dropped in to get a birthday treat for me. Then she wouldn’t have had to do the stupid tug of war ritual with Andy Cheung next to the cheap oven that the owners of the restaurant refused to repair. Then she would have been far away from Andy Cheung’s kitchen when the oven exploded. Then her photo wouldn’t have been on the front page of the local newspaper. Then I wouldn’t have spent my twelfth birthday in a morgue.

Mama dies because it was my birthday. She died ‘cos of me.

Grandma is rich and strict. She lives in a big house filled with expensive furniture, ornaments and appliances. She barks out commands. These fill not only Xing Li and Lai Ker with fear but also Xing Li’s Auntie Mei who still lives at home and is a huge disappointment to her mother.

At Xing Li’s first meal at her grandmother’s she and her brother begin eating before their grandmother:

“You think you so clever eat so fast? When grow very fat and go Weight Watchers who blame but you? In Wu house we eat proper, we respect. UNDERSTAND?”

“Now you both listen here for IMPORTANT thing. You act good. I act gooder. You act bad. I act badder. UNDERSTAND?”

Grandma picks up the feather duster and whacks it HARD onto the table. It almost breaks and I can see Lai Ker is scared.

“UNDERSTAND?”

We both nod together.

Grandma is far from the worst of Xing Li’s problems, however. She’s sent to a new school, West Hill Independent Secondary School where the bullying begins as soon as her first teacher declares she’s from China ‘(I was born in Hackney)’ and mispronounces her name. Shirley Teddingham, “Shils” to her friends, leads a verbal and physical bullying campaign against Xing Li that has her eating her lunch in the toilets in an attempt to avoid the bullies.

I start to daydream about what it would be like to grow up in a country where I am not seen as different. Somewhere where I am popular and don’t have to explain my name or that I’m Chinese. It would be a really cool place where Asians and Jamaicans are just seen as doctors, school girls and business women. Not “the Chinese doctor”, “the Asian school girl” or “the black business women of the year”. It would be a country where I was not seen as “ethnic” or “exotic” but just “me”.

Lai Ker has a different take on this. He tells Xing Li, ‘Gotta be proud of your culture innit.’

Lai Ker also has this thing called Chinks Have Mouths or CHM for short. He says if I’m not smart enough or cool enough or loud enough I won’t be a “Chinese person with a mouth”, and I will be “ignored by society”.

Over the next year both Xing Li and Lai Ker are going to have to consider how to reconcile their Chinese and British identities and deal with the people around them who are often ignorant and abusive. They’re also going to have to deal with their grief over their mother’s death; their grandma’s rigid rules, and their Uncle Ho’s mental illness.

PP Wong sets herself quite a challenge in The Life of a Banana: there’s the first person narrative in the voice of a twelve-year-old; a fairly substantial cast of characters; a lot of plot, and some big themes to consider. The voice is mostly convincing – there’s the odd false note, but they’re few and don’t spoil the narrative. The characters are all interesting although the perspective means that some of them aren’t fleshed out until the end of the novel where Xing Li learns a lot about her family in a short period. The plot’s engaging, although I did wonder towards the end if it was one tragedy too far for one family in less than a year, and the themes are well-handled, particularly ideas around identity. It was interesting to see the perspective of a British-born Chinese girl and how little difference her nationality made to the racist bullying she was subjected to.

The Life of a Banana is an engaging read about racial identity and family relationships. I look forward to reading more from PP Wong.

 

Thanks to Legend Press for the review copy.

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2015

It’s here! The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2015 is as follows:

Rachel Cusk: Outline

Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart

Patricia Ferguson: Aren’t We Sisters?

Xiaolu Guo: I Am China

Samantha Harvey: Dear Thief

Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing

Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

Grace McCleen: The Offering

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star

Heather O’Neil: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

Laline Paull: The Bees

Marie Phillips: The Table of Less Valued Knights

Rachel Seiffert: The Walk Home

Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone

Ali Smith: How to be both

Sara Taylor: The Shore

Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread

Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests

Jemma Wayne: After Before

PP Wong: The Life of a Banana

I’ve read and reviewed six of those already, if you hover over the titles, I’ve linked to my reviews.

Initial thoughts are I’m absolutely thrilled for Lissa Evans whose book I love and made my end of year list last year. Also very pleased for Sara Taylor whose debut I’ve read but not posted my review of yet (it’s published later this month), which is very good. I’ve got lots of reading to do but many of the books there are books I’ve had in my to be read pile for a while! (I also need to apologise to the person who commented on my wish list and mentioned Heather O’Neill’s book; I didn’t think it was eligible and clearly I was wrong. I’m pleased it comes highly recommended though.)

I’m looking forward to reading the rest and discussing with the rest of the shadow panel. Please do join in and let us know what you think of the list and any of the books you read.

A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler’s latest novel tells the story of the Whitshank family. The book begins in 1994 with Abby and Red receiving a phone call from their son, Denny, who tells Red he’s gay. We soon discover this is one of many things Denny will say and do for which his only motivation might be annoying his parents.

“How would I know where he was calling from? He doesn’t have a fixed address, hasn’t been in touch all summer, already changed jobs twice that we know of and probably more that we don’t know of…A nineteen-year-old boy and we have no idea what part of the planet he’s on! You’ve got to wonder what’s wrong there!”

A page later, Red’s reminding Abby that Denny got a girl pregnant before he left school and bemoaning the day he married Abby, the social worker.

Denny’s the third of four children – Amanda and Jeannie are his older sisters and Stem his younger brother.

He was far more generous, for instance, than the other three put together. (He traded his new bike for a kitten when Jeannie’s beloved cat died.) And he didn’t bully other children, or throw tantrums. But he was so close-mouthed. He had these spells of unexplained obstinacy, where his face would grow set and pinched and no one could get through to him. It seemed to be a kind of inward tantrum; it seemed his anger turned in upon itself and hardened him or froze him.

The first chapter of the book is a potted history of Denny’s life, we are told about his many failures and few successes and how Abby and Red feel about their son. But this is not a book about Denny – although he does bookend the novel – it’s a book about the whole family and the second chapter takes us back to Red’s father, Junior, and the house he built.

By chapter three we’re in 2012 and Abby begins to disappear. Not just physically but also from conversations taking place when she’s present. Red stops attending to the house he’s always loved and their children begin to wonder whether it’s time for them to move somewhere else. When they refuse, Stem and his wife Nora move in.

What Tyler does so well here is show the tensions between the parents and the children who’ve invaded their house – particularly between Abby and her daughter-in-law, Nora – and between the siblings who each think they should be responsible for their parents’ welfare, particularly Denny, who reappears.

The novel then moves backwards in time; firstly to Abby and Red’s courtship and then back further to Red’s father, Junior, and how he met and eventually married Red’s mother, Linnie Mae.

Linnie Mae’s a particularly great character, seemingly a bit of a simple country girl, she manipulates situations to her satisfaction, those around her only realising what she’s done when it’s far too late to respond.

There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks. None of them was famous. None of them could claim exceptional intelligence. And in looks, they were no more than average…But like most families, they imagined they were special.

Anne Tyler’s speciality is making ordinary people seem special. She highlights those moments that seem to be generic family happenings – fights between grown siblings that come from seething tensions and then seem embarrassing moments after they’ve happened; antagonism between parents and children at various stages of their lives; the changes in relationships as people age and situations change. A Spool of Blue Thread is classic Tyler.

The book has also been reviewed by fellow Bailey’s Prize shadow jurors Eric and Paola. Click on their names to be taken to their review.

Thanks to Chatto and Windus for the review copy.

Crooked Heart – Lissa Evans

‘Hobbies are for people who don’t read books,’ said Noel; it was one of Mattie’s sayings.

Crooked Heart begins with a lengthy prologue in which we are introduced to ten-year-old Noel and his godmother, Mattie.

She was losing words. At first it was quite funny. ‘The box of things,’ Mattie would say, waving her mauve-veined hands vaguely around the kitchen.

‘The box of things for making flames. It’s a song, Noel!

‘The box of things for making flames
I can’t recall their bloody names.’

…After a while, it stopped being funny…Some words would resurface after a few days; others would sink for ever. Noel started writing labels: ‘SHAWL’, ‘WIRELESS’, ‘GAS MASK’, ‘CUTLERY DRAWER’.

Mattie’s Uncle Geoffrey and Auntie Margery come to visit and Geoffrey makes sure the house meets the blackout regulations, him being an air-raid warden. When he asks where Noel might be off to as an evacuee, Mattie says she hasn’t registered him for evacuation:

‘And since when have I ever taken any notice of what the government says?’ asked Mattie.
There was no possible reply to this. She had been gaoled five times as a suffragette; she still had the scars of handcuffs on her wrists.

I could easily quote most of Mattie’s lines here. She’s a wonderful creation who challenges authority and clearly adores her godson. But then her health deteriorates and when she walks out of the house in her dressing gown and galoshes, holding a torch, Noel struggles to find her.

The main part of the book takes us forward in time to Noel being evacuated along with his classmates from Rhyll Street Junior School. On the train journey, out of London, he spends his time writing in a notebook.

‘What’s in the notebook?’
‘Nothing,’ said Noel, again. Roy snatched it and squinted at the rows of symbols.
‘It’s gobbledegook,’ he said.
Noel took it back, quietly satisfied. It was a very simple code called ‘Pigpen’ and he had just written Roy Pursey is the most ignorant and unpleasant boy in Rhyll Street Junior School.

When they arrive in St. Albans, Noel’s left waiting for someone to choose to look after him as we’re introduced to Vee Sedge.

Vee lives above a scrap metal yard, which her 19-year-old son, Donald, is supposed to patrol regularly throughout the night. He lives with her above the yard having been diagnosed with a heart murmur, a leaky valve, at his call-up medical. For the last few months, Donald’s been going on regular day trips. Because he sometime slips her some money the following day, Vee suspects he’s going to the races. Vee’s mother also lives in the flat, she spends her time writing letters to relatives and the likes of the Archbishop of Canterbury and President Roosevelt.

Vee struggles to make ends meet so when she sees there’s only two evacuees left and one of them’s ‘…the limping creature with the ears’, she remembers that you get paid for taking an evacuee – more if they have a medical condition – and soon Noel is living in the flat too – while Donald patrols, Noel sleeps and while Noel’s at school, Donald sleeps.

Vee is mostly irritated by Noel to begin with but after an incident which ends with her smacking him across the face, her guilt leads her to invite him on her afternoon trip the following day and Noel discovers how she’s really making the rent.

Crooked Heart has three key plot elements: What’s going to happen to Noel? What’s Vee up to? And where’s Donald going? There are numerous twist and turns and more characters to meet along the way but the stories of these three characters are the centre of the book.

Evans is a great writer; the novel appears effortless by which I mean that you barely notice the writing even though it’s clear that the characters are drawn through small details, actions and some wonderful dialogue.

‘That man on the motorcycle,’ she said, crossing the ditch, and waiting for him to follow, ‘is a rates collector, which means he goes round frightening people, nagging at them, saying they’ll go to prison and so on, if they don’t pay money that they don’t have, and it’s a scandal, and he gets paid a good wage by the council for doing it, too, and if you ask me, it’s pure wickedness.’
‘My uncle works for the rates,’ said Noel.
‘Does he? Well…’ she groped around for a mollifying statement. ‘There’s good and bad all over,’ she said lamely. ‘I expect your uncle’s kind to you,’
‘No,’ said Noel. ‘I hate him.’

Crooked Heart is about the lengths people will go to survive, particularly in a war. It’s about love and honour, but not in the ways you might expect. And it’s about family and finding yours where you least expect it. It manages to be heart-warming and funny while tackling dark subjects. I loved it.

Fellow Bailey’s Prize shadow judges Eric and Helen have also reviewed the book. Click on their names for their reviews.

Thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven begins with an actor, 51-year-old Arthur Leander, having a heart attack onstage during a performance of King Lear. While this is happening, unknown to those in the theatre, a pandemic is occurring.

An outbreak of flu in Georgia has spread to Canada via an aeroplane passenger. Hua, a doctor at Toronto General Hospital, rings his friend Jeevan Chaudhary as Jeevan walks home from the theatre:

“We’ve admitted over two hundred flu patients since this morning,” Hua said. “A hundred and sixty in the past three hours. Fifteen of them have died. The ER’s full of new cases. We’ve got beds parked in hallways…

“It’s the fastest incubation period I’ve ever seen. I just saw a patient, she works as an orderly here at the hospital, on duty when the first patients started coming in this morning. She started feeling sick a few hours into her shift, went home early, her boyfriend drove her back in two hours ago and now she’s on a ventilator. You get exposed to this, you’re sick within hours.”

We follow Jeevan as he prepares to survive for as long as he can. That’s one small thread in a much more complex story though.

In the time before the pandemic, we learn about Arthur Leander. A hugely famous actor with three ex-wives and a son, his personal story is fascinating. It’s also largely the story of his first wife, Miranda, who creates a graphic novel called Station Eleven which is passed onto Kirsten, one of the child actors in the performance of King Lear in which Leander dies.

Kirsten is the focus of the other main thread of the novel which is set in Year Twenty after the pandemic and the world as we would recognise it. She is part of a group called the Travelling Symphony who walk from settlement to settlement performing music and plays.

The Symphony performed music – classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs – and Shakespeare. They’d performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated was that audiences seem to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.

“People want what was best about the world,” Dieter said.

When we first encounter The Travelling Symphony, it’s arriving at a place called St. Deborah by the Water. It’s a place on their regular circuit where two years previously they’d left two of their number – Charlie and the sixth guitar – so Charlie could give birth somewhere that wasn’t on the road. But the atmosphere in the town is off, Charlie and the sixth guitar are nowhere to be found, and then there’s The Prophet.

Station Eleven is a story about civilisation and relationships.

…this collection of petty jealousies, neuroses, undiagnosed PTSD cases, and simmering resentments lived together, travelled together, rehearsed together, performed together 365 days of the year, permanent company, permanent tour. But what made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the camaraderie and the music and the Shakespeare, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy when it didn’t matter who’d used the last of the rosin on their bow or who anyone had slept with…

The quotation refers to the Symphony but it’s equally valid for a family or a long-term group of friends and through the events in the novel – both pre and post-pandemic – Mandel shows us the power that relationships can have, both positive and negative.

The novel’s structured so it moves between the pre and post-pandemic stories but neither of these is told in a linear fashion. Mandel places events in order to withhold key pieces of information, drip-feeding us with perfect timing. Her sentences are precise and well balanced, creating characters through action and dialogue.

I thoroughly enjoyed Station Eleven. It left me with a number of questions about the nature of humanity but more than anything it left me with hope. Hope that if the apocalypse were to happen aspects of our culture would survive; hope that humans can support and inspire each other; hope that ultimately we are a civilised race.

The book has also been reviewed by fellow Bailey’s Prize shadow juror Eric. Click on his name to be taken to his review.

Thanks to Picador for the review copy.

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

London, 1922. The city is trying to rebuild itself after the war – not just in terms of the buildings but also its people: those who have been to war and returned injured and scarred – physically and mentally; those who made decisions that otherwise would have been considered rash; those who now find themselves in financial difficulties.

Frances Wray, 26, and her mother live in Champion Hill. Following the death of Frances’ father and her brother during the war, they fall into the latter of the categories listed above. In order to try and prevent them losing their family home, they decide to take some lodgers. As the novel begins, they are waiting for Mr and Mrs Barber to arrive. When they do, Frances helps with unloading the van:

Over his shoulder Frances caught a glimpse of what was inside it: a mess of bursting suitcases, a tangle of chair and table legs, bundle after bundle of bedding and rugs, a portable gramophone, a wicker birdcage, a bronze-effect ashtray on a marble stand…The thought that all these items were about to be brought into her home – and that this couple, who were not quite the couple she remembered, who were younger, and brasher, were going to bring them, and set them out, and make their own home, brashly, among them – the thought brought on a flutter of panic. What on earth had she done? She felt as though she was opening up the house to thieves and invaders.

The couple are part of the ‘clerk class’, he works for an insurance company, she, of course, stays at home and decorates their rooms with exotic ornaments and paraphernalia.

At first, Frances seems to see Mr Barber more often – when he is smoking in the back garden, or on his way to or from it. She fears he is teasing her when he speaks to her and quite often his words seem to contain an innuendo. For his part, he seems to have Frances pigeonholed as a stereotypical spinster.

Frances, however, we learn by increments, is a passionate woman – I use the word in both its senses. She was part of the suffrage movement, which was how she met her friend Christina, whom she visits regularly throughout the novel, and also how she came to be arrested. She’s also passionate about the upkeep of her and her mother’s house, which she has taken on since the servants had to be dismissed when they could no longer afford them. She has no qualms about cleaning, even though her mother despairs, and rejects her mother’s call to get Mr Barber when a mouse is found, catching and disposing of it herself.

Eventually, helped by a visit from Mrs Barber’s mother, sisters and nieces and nephews, Frances and Mrs Barber – Lillian – begin a friendship. It is a friendship that will transform both of them in unexpected ways.

‘…”Forgive me, Mrs Barber. I don’t mean to be mysterious. I don’t mean to be maudlin, either. All I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that this life, the life I have now, it isn’t – “ It isn’t the life I was meant to have. It isn’t the life I want! “It isn’t the life I thought I would have,’ she finished.

The Paying Guests considers ideas of class, money, passion, marriage, the aftermath of war, morality and justice. Many of these themes are, of course, significant today and Waters’ treatment of morality and justice, in particular, is challenging and thought-provoking.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, I suspect partly because I knew so little about it and I’ve tried to avoid saying too much about the plot here for that reason. It also contains some of Waters’ trademark twists – and they’re delicious!

Waters’ writing is clear and concise. Her style is fluent and so easy to read; I think sometimes the work that goes into creating something so consistently readable is underestimated. Here the writing allows you to become absorbed in Frances’ world, in London in 1922 and not once are you jolted out of it.

The Paying Guests is vintage Waters and spending a few hours in her carefully crafted world will not disappoint.

Fellow Bailey’s Prize shadow jurors Eric and Helen have also reviewed this. Click on their names for their thoughts.

Thanks to Virago for the review copy.

Elizabeth Is Missing – Emma Healey

The first character we meet in Elizabeth Is Missing is Carla, Maud’s carer. Carla’s what you might refer to as ‘a charmer’.

‘You know there was an old woman mugged around here?’ Carla says, letting her long black ponytail snake over one shoulder. ‘Well, actually, it was Weymouth, but it could have been here. So you see, you can’t be too careful. They found her with half her face smashed in.’

Carla appears several times throughout the story with her tales of doom; she’s there to give us one angle on the way people talk to and treat the elderly. Which, of course, makes you wonder why Maud needs a carer.

‘I’ve done your lunch.’ She snaps off plastic gloves. ‘It’s in the fridge, and I’ve put a note on it. It’s nine forty now, try not to eat it till twelve, right?’

She talks as if I gobble everything up as soon as she leaves…The front door clicks shut and I hear Carla locking it after her. Locking me in.

[A few lines later]

I pull a plate from the fridge…The plate has a note attached: Lunch for Maud to eat after 12 p.m. I take the cling film off. It’s a cheese and tomato sandwich.

When I’ve finished eating I wander back to the siting room.

Hopefully you’ve realised by now that Maud has dementia. This results in her eating too much, buying tins and tins of peach slices, losing her way home, being unable to follow the plot of novels and, in one particularly distressing scene, not knowing when she needs the toilet until it’s too late. Some of the most devastating scenes in the book are Maud’s family trying to support her as her condition deteriorates. (I’m hoping that no one thinks I’ve spoiled the book with that comment; Healey takes the condition seriously and there will be no miracle recovery for Maud.)

That’s only one part of this story though because the novel has two mysteries at its centre – one in the present day and one in the past.

In the present day, the Elizabeth of the book’s title is missing. Elizabeth is Maud’s friend. Maud recounts the hours she’s spent at Elizabeth’s house looking out into the garden and the ‘antiques’ she and Elizabeth have collected during their hours volunteering at a local Oxfam shop. Maud telephones Elizabeth’s vile son, Peter, to see if he can help and then sets off on her own to solve the mystery.

The current mystery makes Maud think back to her childhood and her sister, Sukey, whose own disappearance, seventy years previously, has never been solved.

Healey does a wonderful job of portraying Maud’s deterioration which, to my mind, is very realistic. She writes beautifully with some lovely flourishes: Carla, ‘…wears a coat with a fur-edged hood over her uniform. A carer in wolf’s clothing’; a bruise that Maud sustained when she was younger, caused by an umbrella, was ‘…dark against my pale skin…as if it had left a piece of itself on me, a feather from a broken wing’, and tissues are ‘…twisted like the limbs of trees and fraying into dust at the edges’. She also does a fabulous job of bringing all the strands of the story together at the end of the book, it’s so well done that I didn’t see it coming despite realising, in hindsight, there were plenty of clues and it meant I could forgive the odd moment where it felt as though the device that took Maud from the current day back to the mystery of Sukey was a little forced.

Elizabeth Is Missing is a fantastic book with one of the best final lines I’ve seen; I’ll be following Emma Healey’s career closely.

Fellow Bailey’s Prize shadow judges EricHelen and Paola have also reviewed the book. Click on their names to be taken to their reviews.

Thanks to Penguin for the review copy.