This book club pick was one I would probably not have chosen on my own but after I read it I noticed that it kind of blew up. I saw that May Paulson-Ellis was giving talks during Book Week Scotland, It won Waterstones’ Scottish Book of the Year 2017, leading to new editions appearing in Waterstones and a new flurry of reviews. Including this one, I suppose.
The story gets going with the discovery of the body of an elderly lady in her flat. She doesn’t appear to have any idea and seems to have lived a lonely life, as a result no one really knows who she is. Not knowing who she is, the authorities also don’t know if she has any family who they should be getting in touch with. All they have is a name – Mrs Walker.
Meanwhile, Margaret Penny (47), disapointed with life’s ability to fulfil its promises, has just arrived back in Edinburgh, a city she ran from when she was 19 to start a new life in London. Since that went wrong, she’s now running back, and arrives unexpectedly at her mother Barbara’s doorstep in the dead of winter, bringing a bottle of rum as a peace offering and hoping to stay in the box room whilst she figures out how to put her life back together. Barbara is less than thrilled to see her prodigal daughter return, but agrees to let her stay. Through Barbara’s church, Margaret hears about the need for people to track down histories and families for people like the deceased Mrs Walker, and ends up doing some detective work.
The story jumps back and forther between the early 2000s and ~1925 and ~1945. The chapter set in the more recent era follow Margaret trying to track down information about Mrs Walker by visiting her old flat, the morgue and eventually travelling back down to London to follow the flimsiest of leads. The chapters set in the earlier eras follow a family living in poverty in London. The two stories neatly interweaving as they unravel, with the revelations from the past keeping the reader just slightly ahead of Margaret’s detective work.
Usually this makes the story intriuing. You want to see how Margaret will figure things out (or even if she ever will) and you start to worry about her and her mother as well, even though neither of them are particularly likeable characters. They’re realisticaly flawed in fact, as are most of the characers in this book. You don’t actually need to like them to care about what they’re doing and to worry about their well-being. It’s just a shame that, particularly Barbara and Margaret, can’t seem to make just a few better decisions along the way.
The downside to the back and forth leaps seems to be repitition. There are a lot of overused phrases (“It’s the Edinburgh way” drove me particularly nuts) and over emphasis on the importance of certain found objects. There’s also a few sections that are simply unrealistic and, as a result, pulled me out of a story I was otherwise enjoying. Probably the ending was the worst of these, although Paulson-Ellis did at least have the good sense to not feel the need to tie up all the loose ends.
Still, it’s a fun novel, and enjoyably chilling at times. There are some wonderfully written creepy scenes and creepier characters and there’s a lot to be said here for the depiction of dysfunctional families and the need people have to be able to escape them for a better life. It’s not entirely unlike a good Victorian crime novel and for that alone, I’ll be looking out for the next book Paulson-Ellis releases.