The Gone and the Forgotten by Clare Whitfield – an island setting for exploring family secrets by a confused young woman

The Gone and the Forgotten by Claire Whitfield

Life on a tiny island can be challenging enough for anyone, but for a confused sixteen year old in 1993 it is especially confusing. Prue has been told she must join her aunt Ruth on Noost, just off the mainland of Shetland after her mother tries to end her life. Prue’s only plan in joining her artist relative and her largely unknown husband Archie is to discover the truth about her family. When she arrives in the tiny community and atmospheric family home she discovers that the truth can be elusive and even dangerous. 

This is a terrifically atmospheric book, full of the reality of life on a very small island with extreme weather. There are very few people who live there, including the mysterious and charismatic Archie, and the decidedly eccentric Ronnie. The house is a wonder, large and complex, with hidden corners and seemingly overrun with indoor plants which seem to grow on every surface and round every corner. Anxious as ever to fit in, to do as she is asked, Prue gets involved in a house which seems to conceal many secrets. The great mystery is the fate of the missing Evelyn or Evie from twenty years before; a decided lack of suspects makes some in the community look to Archie as the guilty party. Secrets seem to echo around the big house as accusations fly and some struggle to cope. Prue tries to fit in perhaps more than she realises with the extreme characters, especially with encouragement and memories of her more worldly wise friend Subo, and makes decisions that she would never have foreseen. 

Beneath the dramatic events on the island and the challenges Prue faces is her almost instinctive truth about her parentage. She has long dreamt of a father who will sweep into her life and rescue her from her sad and repressive mother, but between her, Ruth and her late Nana she can get no answer to her question. She experiences nightmares on the island which cannot all be explained by the alcohol she is persuaded to consume. 

This is a book of searching, trying to discover the truth amid layers of secrets and perhaps lies. It contains some amazing characters, including the unhappy family of the missing Evie, and the well intentioned James. Ronnie is a confusing and extravagant character, quite a creation within a book of remarkable people. The setting is well described, with the cut off feeling of island life, seemingly largely uninterrupted by outside influences. There are plenty of references to the plants, landscape and life on the island, yet the central narrative revolves around the largely bewildered Prue, her memories and her concerns for her present. It is a vividly written book, memorable for the descriptions of the people, place and events.

I found it a largely enthralling book written in a flowing style consistent with the place where Prue finds herself. There is a certain amount of violence and realism which is blended in with the questions that Prue feels she has come to answer. There is a great deal of honesty in this novel, realism and themes that challenge. Family secrets, the truth of what is happening and what has happened in the past are well blended into the story. This is a very enjoyable book which I felt drawn into, keen to discover what would happen next, and what Prue will discover. It is a book with great depth and plenty of action, even when the decisions that Prue makes are dubious. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book, and particularly enjoyed the island setting.    

The Martins by David Foenkinos – a book of writing from life with gentle humour

The Martins by David Foenkinos

This is a novel about writing a book. Written originally in French and translated by Sam Taylor, it features a thoughtful and nameless author who takes a bold decision: that he will write his book about the first person he sees on the street. It is an intriguing possibility, which allows for the first time in his career the outcome that his characters will actually fight with him. He has hopes of a mysterious woman who stands smoking opposite his apartment on occasion; instead he sees a much older woman. As he reflects later with grim realism , he was unlikely to encounter a “go go dancer” at that time of day. What he doesn’t realise at that point is how an elderly person could involve him in a mysterious drama, and how her family could involve him in their individual concerns. 

This book emerges as a carefully written yet deceptively light read which offers some real insight into the writer’s life and processes, at least in this context. It has much to offer in terms of observation into ordinary lives, the lives of a family which at first sight seems painfully normal and largely predictable. From the elderly Madeleine who has a past which dominates her thoughts but which holds hints for her future, to two her two teenage grandchildren who at first seem sullen, but have some interesting requests of a writer and possible director who has come into their lives. It is because what the writer realises is that having made the decision to replace fictional constructs with real people he cannot control them. Instead of giving them ambitions and decisions he creates and can predict, they have wills of their own and accordingly use them to allow situations to develop that they must deal with on their own terms. 

This book raises all sorts of questions, such as whether he is obliged to tell the complete truth about people in a book that is going to be for entertainment rather than scholarly debate. His original idea after all is to write an account of a real person, with their past secrets, present dilemmas and potential future. He does not allow for how his presence and involvement will change them, affect their communication between themselves, clarify their choices and reveal their unspoken thoughts. He discovers that the person he had assessed as staying in the past is the one that demands more in terms of their future. 

It is interesting how the continual narration from the author reveals so much about him, how he regards his life and modest success, how he comes to think about his own decisions. It is almost as if the creator finds his creation fighting back, changing his own life. It is also fascinating how he contemplates depicting the variations of memory and life on the page. 

This is a thoughtful book which changes under its own momentum. There is dry, realistic humour which runs throughout, and makes it entertaining and sometimes provocative. There are surprises for the writer/narrator which also keep the story moving and surprise the reader in their turn. It is a well thought through premise for a book which I found gently enjoyable. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it, and would certainly recommend it to anyone who is seeking something slightly unusual.   

The Poet by Louisa Reid – an unusual novel of rage, power and a vivid voice

The Poet by Louisa Reid

A novel in verse is an unusual concept, but in this story of a painful, toxic relationship it works brilliantly in giving the narrator and main protagonist an individual and powerful voice. This is Emma’s story, an award winning poet whose voice has been silenced in a relationship which depends on her being moulded to the needs and purposes of a manipulative egotist. The style is brilliant because it suggests the sparing nature of her words as she has been forced into the background of her own life. There is space for what matters: her complex feelings about a man who has dominated her life and her dilemmas about how to find herself. After all, they both deal with words, she as a postgraduate student who has not worked on her doctorate for too long, him as a charming Oxford don who attracts attention if not adoration, who soaks her thoughts up like a sponge. It is a situation of power imbalance, where she was his undergraduate student unsure of her place in the University, and he was a married man who sought her out for his own reasons. Not that he revealed that he was married until she was in too deep, not that he really cares for the children he left behind. It has become a toxic relationship as he has reduced her self confidence until she is totally in his shadow, not earning her own money so she cannot claim a measure of independence. This is such a clever novel, ambitious, skilful and creating a total empathy with a clever and increasingly determined young woman.

I found that this book’s strength lies in its powerful use of words in blank verse, as they convey so much in an image, an admission like “Confidence is something I’ve learnt to fake”  rather than a long description of how and why. It says how she felt that she surprised herself by getting into Oxford in the first place, how the interview process left her feeling bewildered and second rate in a few deft lines, comparing her naivety with the assurance of the other candidates. This imposter syndrome made her an easy target for a man who had strong views on the women on his course,charming them along with everything else, convincing them that he knew best, that in his attention they could find their true role. With Emma he recognised someone with a real flair for ideas, a flair that he used especially when she won a prize for her poetry collection. Since then, while she keeps his house going and responds to his every need, he has played down her writing and suggested that she take a break from her studies into Charlotte Mew, a not so well known Victorian poet. When he dismisses Emma’s work as derivative, she rips up her work even though “I miss those poems I destroyed”. He leaves her to look after his daughters on their regular visits, and seems to believe the occasional kind word or gesture will keep her in thrall.

It is when she discovers his greatest betrayal that she becomes determined to do more than carry on with low level anger and explodes into rage beyond words. It is then that this book became truly absorbing for me, as her intentions became complex. It is almost a thriller in how it demands to be read, with the pain becoming visible in every line.

This is a book that defied my expectations with its power and skilful style. This is angry verse, strong and powerful that I found compelling in the way that an ordinary prose narrative would; Emma’s voice is incredible in its realisation, its low level disappointment which turns to anger. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this tremendous book,and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a slightly unusual but incredibly strong read. 

Counterfeit by Kirsten Chen – Handbags, fakes and high fashion – a story of ambition and more in contemporary America and China

Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen

When is an outrageous scam involving counterfeit handbags a good subject for a darkly humorous novel? In this new novel Kirsten Chen answers that; when it involves the experience of women who do everything correctly, make their American – Chinese family happy on the surface, but are really making a lot of money by a complicated system. In the first part of this story Ava is telling her story to a faceless detective. It is a story that goes back to Stanford, when she was a student, and first met a fellow student who seemed endlessly curious. Winnie is that seemingly innocent and bewildered high achieving student who suddenly disappears at the same time as an academic scandal involving Chinese students blows up. When she reappears in Ava’s life some years later, she seems to have all the answers, plus a snappy line in dressing and remarkably expensive handbags. When she makes an offer to Ava, at what point will she get in too far?

This is a fascinating book which looks at the designer handbag industry, where limited edition bags can fetch a premium price in a world where image is all. It also looks at women like Ava who seemingly have it all – a successful surgeon husband, a child and a temporarily paused career as a corporate lawyer. She has seemingly always worked hard, done everything to satisfy her determined and ambitious parents, got an excellent college education but still wants more. Winnie is seemingly a clever and creative fraudster who exploits a loophole in the demand for bags that are sold for enormous prices. Is she everything she seems? Can she truly persuade the less determined Ava to enter into a scheme which involves the manufacture of incredible copies?

Ava’s narrating voice is a convincing one. She has decided not to return to her demanding career despite its high financial rewards to stay at home with her difficult son, Henri. Even with a full time nanny, Maria, she struggles to contain Henri’s outbursts in her story. Her husband Oli is often absent, working as a surgeon in a transplant unit. Ava’s account recalls how she is first approached by Winnie who is trying to obtain a liver transplant for a Chinese businessman. 

The style of this book carefully addresses the strain that Ava feels under as someone who has always achieved her targets, but feels she is failing as a mother. It looks at the way demand for the bags fuels an industry that not only produces these highly desirable objects, but in unsavoury conditions also produces the copies that are virtually indistinguishable. After all, what is the difference between a fake and a real item when they both look good? This book looks at identities, truth and creative fraud, and looks at the victims. It manages to look at American society’s attitudes to women, immigrants and the demand for expensive accessories. It also looks at the costs of labour in China for the workers and those who control them, as well as the ambitions of those who live there. 

This is a lively and well written story which certainly kept my interest even though I have no interest in designer handbags themselves. It has a lot to say about women’s ambitions, and the lengths that they may be willing to go in order to achieve what they desire. It is a clever idea to look at a crime which may seem to be victimless, but actually has its costs. It uses various narrative techniques to good effect, and Chen writes with great confidence and flair. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book, a variation of some elements of the American dream, and a look at the nature of friendship and fakes. 

Through the Water Darkly by Victoria L Short – a time slip adventure with an eye for detail and much more.

Through the Water Darkly by Victoria L Short

Time is a slippery concept in this well written novel about a young woman caught up in a historical crisis while falling deeply in love. Caroline is a gardener in the twenty-first century, with a deep appreciation and knowledge of plants and their uses. One day she happens to meet a local landowner, and they seem to recognise each other. When she has an accident, everything changes, and nothing will ever be the same.

Caroline’s discovery that she has woken up in the seventeenth century is well handled, as she simultaneously begins to “remember” her life there, as well as retaining a sense of who she is in that other time. Not that she has slipped into a mundane time in the seventeenth century; the first English Civil War has just ended, and not only King Charles I is on the run, but also his son, the Prince of Wales. When she is suddenly able to assert that she is Lady Carolina Sackville, daughter of a Royalist Duke, a mixture of modern day confidence and realisation that she must thoroughly assume her new identity to survive is the key to living this new life. When she meets a certain man she realises that her historical knowledge will carry a huge weight of responsibility for creating the possibilities of pushing against history. 

This is a novel which is written with a skill for handling huge topics in a very personal way. The author has obviously done her research into the general history of the time, but deploys it in a light handed way. She conveys so much in the small details of life at the time for a woman of high social standing but fighting against the ingrained assumption that she should stick to her home and family rather than expressing an opinion. Short is extremely good at depicting Caroline’s instinctive reaction to a situation, especially when her knowledge of plants to help in medical emergencies is put to good use. She is extremely good at conveying someone’s character in a few words, such as the generous Beth and the men who come to see as friends and supporters. There is some violence, often as Caroline is forced to defend herself using some very modern skills, and the brutality of a civil war when it is difficult to tell friend from potential foe. It is also a romance, with detailed encounters that show a depth of genuine attraction and a real relationship with all its ups and downs. 

The whole problem of time travel when there is a risk of altering the course of history is deftly handled in this novel, with it being an involuntary relocation in another time zone, one that the main character has to handle as she goes along. I enjoyed the humorous touches as Caroline gasps phrases that are normal in the twenty-first century, but are looked on in a completely different way in a time of cavaliers and roundheads. 

This is quite an immersive reading experience which I found compelling, and it is obvious that the author enjoyed writing it. I really enjoyed the clever handling of characters in the book, as well as the unusual romance. I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review this unusual book, and look forward to reading more from this talented writer. 

The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by Sean Lusk – an amazing historical novel full of remarkable characters

The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by Sean Lusk

This is a book which covers so much in terms of character, setting and themes that it is a huge achievement. The named character, Zachary Cloudesley, is a remarkable character from his first moments, but it is  people’s reactions to him that form the main theme of this novel. It is set in London in the mid 1700s onwards, but this is no delicate comedy as it moves to rural England and onwards to Constantinople. The fabled city of the Ottoman empire is almost another character in this book, in a novel populated with amazing people and creations. It begins with something distressingly common, a birth which ends in the death of a much loved woman, Alice, and the survival of a remarkable child. His loving and helpless father, Abel, is left without a clue what to do with a quiet but seemingly healthy baby boy, and it is here that the adventure begins. It is such a well constructed book, with fantastic settings throughout that are vividly described. I became totally engaged with this book, able to visualise the scenes that came to life in the writing.

The main strength of this book, however, is the remarkable set of characters that the author has created. Zachary is described as having a remarkable gift for seeing visions which seem to predict the future, but it is certainly not always a gift that he is grateful for throughout the book. He grows to be a fiercely intelligent boy with an insatiable curiosity and boundless energy, which almost proves his downfall when an accident changes his life. His father Abel is left totally bereft by his wife’s death, but is fortunate to engage the strong willed Mrs Morley who takes over the baby’s care. An amazing relative, Lady Frances Peake-Barnes, is on hand to care for the little boy, but she has her own eccentricities that run alongside her wealth and determination to take over Zachary. Abel, full of guilt at his wife’s death, clueless about caring for any baby, let alone a remarkable one, has a talent that sets him apart and dominates his life. He is a clockmaker, but also a maker of automata that can almost imitate life. He has gathered around him a group of workers who help him create wondrous models that are at once breathtakingly beautiful and lifelike. They are special characters, supporters, skilled artisans and more. They too come to regard the small Zachary with amazement and affection, and support father and son in so many ways. 

This is a vibrant historical novel that moves at the same energetic pace as young Zachary. It is historically based with a lot of research, but is never slowed by surplus information; instead the characters are given plenty of time and space to develop. There is humour from several sources, including the Reverend Ratcliffe, who pronounces that “The whole point of the Church of England is to do what is expected of us without thinking too much about it”. There are touching moments, as the most unexpected people show kindness, including one man who advises Zachary to “Be subtle, be wary, be sensibly afraid.”  My favourite character is undoubtedly Frances, who has some unusual ideas, enjoys disruption, and cares for several of the characters deeply.

Altogether this is a most enjoyable book, with some unusual but always consistent ideas, some beautiful images and some lively descriptions. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. I recommend it to historical fiction fans who enjoy something a little different.   

The Mayfair Bookshop by Eliza Knight – Nancy Mitford and the search for happiness then and now

The Mayfair Bookshop by Eliza Knight

This cleverly written book makes the most of the existing letters and information regarding the novelist Nancy Mitford and adds a fictional layer to tell an intimate and fascinating story of the woman who wrote “In Pursuit of Love”. It is a dual time period book with the creation of a contemporary book curator, Lucy St. Clair, who is sent to London for a short time to work in the famous Heywood Hill bookshop in Mayfair. Lucy is recovering from the loss of her mother, especially as the two of them were fascinated by Nancy, and determined to discover who was the friend called Iris who Nancy left a book for in the shop. Meanwhile Nancy progresses from the ultimate Bright Young Thing through several relationships, including an unhappy marriage. As the eldest Mitford sister, she gets drawn into the family scandals, including Diana’s obsession with fascist Oswald Mosley and Unity’s attraction to Hitler among other worries. As war approaches, Nancy is struggling to make ends meet financially, cope with her errant husband and dealing with her notorious family. Letters are added to her narrative which express her feelings, and her despair when she seems unable to have a child. When war is declared, she becomes determined to play her part, but when some of her family are openly hoping for a different outcome to hostilities, many friends are absent and in danger and even her writing seems to be impossible; how will she survive?

This is a well constructed story of two women trying to find answers, as Lucy tries to discover what really happened to her heroine and her special friend. The Nancy sections are desperately personal, helped along by letters that the author has created to encapsulate the situation that the author found herself in. While this is a fictional treatment, it is a very powerful way of conveying the struggles Nancy had which went beyond the partly autobiographical Pursuit of Love among her other work.From my reading of some of the biographies which Knight lists in her bibliographies in the back of this edition, it is a powerful novel based on solid research and an understanding of the main characters. Knowing that so many of her family’s actions would be poured over by newspaper journalists and readers would have been challenging for Nancy, especially against the background of her unsatisfactory marriage and other disappointments.  Her highs and lows, her decisions and struggles are so well represented in this book in a well balanced narrative which I found a compelling read.

The strand of the book set in the twenty-first century also makes an impact, its overall theme being the wonders of being in the heart of the city which Nancy knew so well at a difficult time, as Lucy discovers the magic of the memories that still linger of Nancy’s life and times.  It lightens the book considerably to witness her enjoyment of a visit to Chatsworth where youngest sister Deborah lived for many years,and to discover the special atmosphere of a bookshop which Nancy breathed life into which survives so many years later. Lucy’s search for the elusive Iris is well depicted as a challenge which gives depth to her story and links her to her much loved mother. 

I really enjoyed this book which kept moving and drawing me on through a well known story of a favourite author. I found it difficult to put down, as it was so well written with all the details of the clothes of the time, the danger of being in London during the Blitz and the everyday struggles of rationing. It combined the two time periods with a great deal of skill, while managing to convey two enthralling stories of women meeting challenges. I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review this fascinating book, and recommend it to those who love books and the story of the eldest Mitford daughter.  

Young Women by Jessica Moor – Female friendship and experience in contemporary London

Young Women by Jessica Moor

This powerful and compelling novel is based on the idea that every woman has a story of their past where they have experienced some form of assault. It also ranges over such themes as toxic friendship and the power of memory to disrupt life. Written in the voice of Emily, a young woman living in contemporary London, it speaks of the confusion of finding a whole new sort of friendship with a very different person, Tamsin. Meeting at a protest, theirs is a relationship fraught with unspoken baggage but also the highs of a new sort of life for  Emily who has become comfortable or at least settled in her work in a legal advocacy firm. She has one old friend, Lucy, and responsibilities for giving a voice to women caught up in the legal system. When she meets Tamsin she is literally dazzled by her confidence, personality and accomplished aurora. Emily is shown a whole new world by Tamsin, of hangover cures, female solidarity and much more. Soon Emily becomes totally focused on a woman who seems to change everything, as she introduces a whole new aspect to life. 

It is only when a huge news story breaks about historic sexual abuse that Emily begins to realise that somehow more lives have been changed than she realises. As she neglects her work,friendships and new relationships, Emily realises that everyone’s story is not straightforward.

This is a compelling novel written with a real instinct for the stories of sometimes lonely young women living in contemporary London who come to acknowledge that their stories of powerlessness in a society dominated by men is not unusual. Emily is an unreliable narrator, swayed by her own memories and perhaps lacking in understanding of the stories of others, what has happened and how that leaves their world view. The stories may range from specific incidents to difficult long term relationships, where the power was in the hands of men who often try to silence women. It speaks of online dating, the predictability of encounters, and the impact of lack of knowledge of what is really going on in people’s lives. It shows London as a place of contrasts, of bars inhabited by wealthy people and the mundane flats that most people live in, the cafes and meeting places, the popularity of films and the small corners of undiscovered possible meeting places. It speaks of the poise of the settled relationships that may well hide secrets, and also the traps set for the unwary struggling with language and vulnerable to exploitation. 

I found that this was a novel that was nearly impossible to put down as Emily struggles with her growing fascination for the enchanting Tamsin. Tamsin’s international background gives her an air of being difficult to tie down to a time and place, which becomes a huge consideration as the novel proceeds. I think that the vivid description of people adds greatly to the novel; Moor has a real gift for introducing characters in a succinct way and maintaining their consistent features, even when they are deliberately contradictory like Tamsin. The settings are also skillfully drawn, like Tamsin’s unlikely and unique living space with its balcony, contrasting with Emily’s far more ordinary flatshare. 

This is a book that I certainly enjoyed, and will be recommending to  others. It is so truthful in its demonstrating that no story is straightforward, and that revealing it may not always be the easy option to report and complain of abuse and assault. The relationships that Emily has with Tamsin and her longer term friend Lucy are both brilliantly handled.Using Emily’s voice allows the descriptions of others to be uncertain and undecided in a way that an omnipresent narrator would not be, and has much more to say about the protagonists in the well written novel. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book, and will certainly want to share it.    

Fossils by Alison Armstrong – a novel of the environment in all senses, from an interesting perspective

Fossils by Alison Armstrong

This is a novel about the power of storytelling. It is itself told from the perspective of a twelve year old girl who notices things, and is passionately concerned about the fate of the planet. Sherrie-Lee causes herself to be known as Zadie, and surrounds herself with deep thought about the environment, the estate where she lives, the house where she stays, but also the wider environment that animals have to live in. Introspective and immensely thoughtful, she thinks deeply about the probable fate of the animals on earth, how they will become extinct, how they cannot survive in a world of human thoughtlessness. Their fate seems to be enclosed in the fossils she collects, or at least the stones that resemble fossils, creatures forever encased in hard stone. 

The book begins with an unusual incident, a failed bank robbery, but it appears to be a catalyst for her to make a difference to her difficult situation. Her home, her family, is dysfunctional, with an absent father, a mother seemingly dependent on painkillers, an older sister who is permanently cross with her, and a younger brother who is definitely on the autistic spectrum. Sherrie- Lee is obviously a clever person, with some success at school but aware that she is regarded as different, not only for her challenging home life, but also because she is different. Her interest is in story telling, a skill she is determined to cultivate, as a way of making her way in the world, of coping with difficult situations, of helping her brother Joshy when he struggles to understand the world. Inspired by the visit of a professional storyteller to her school, she wants to construct a bank of stories that will support her in every way, fables, not necessarily with a message, but with a meaning. 

This author has a real gift for picking up on the small details which others may dismiss as mundane, but which in her hands become part of an atmosphere, surroundings which contribute to the whole. The focus throughout the book is on Sherrie-Lee, what she thinks, her plan, her stories both spoken and unspoken. We see virtually every other character from her perspective, what she thinks of them, what she thinks motivates them. Thus there is the innocence of a twelve year old contrasted with the suspicion of a girl who has walked the streets alone, dealt with people and issues far beyond her age. Sherrie-Lee is a character of contrasts like everyone else, but she sees the world in a particular way, with patterns, deductions and stories. Sometimes she hides skillfully behind a bank of lies, perhaps what she sees as stories, but she is always honest with herself.

Alison Armstrong has constructed a novel which allows a passionate, non- jaded reaction to the problems of environment and the fragility of the natural world. Sherrie- Lee visits the library, or at least refers to her regular visits, an environment she feels comfortable in, with blue haired Claire, the librarian. The library is important in Sherrie-Lee’s life, a safe space where she can read and absorb the information in the non fiction books that she loves, where she can learn facts about the green spaces which she studies, the wild life she may encounter. This is a consistent fact about this contradictory girl, that she can consider those facts even in grim times.

Altogether this is a memorable book for its incredible perspective on the world and the environment both on macro and micro levels. The choice of such a young main character means that an earnest concern can be expressed without all the learned reservations of adulthood. Sherrie-Lee’s intensity is conveyed well and consistently throughout this novel with a real observational flair. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel.

The Girl on the 88 Bus by Freya Sampson – a book of friendship and hope on a London Bus

The Girl on the 88 Bus by Freya Sampson

A bus, or at least the route through central London it takes, is an unusual setting for a love story – but this is an unusual love story. Rich in characters and with a seemingly effortlessly constructed plot, this lovely book deals with friendship and love of various types. It begins with a Prologue set in April 1962, but the bulk of the novel is set very much in contemporary London, as people journey on a bus which takes in the main sights and well known places in the capital, including crucially the National Gallery. In some ways the predictability of the journey makes meetings and encounters of all sorts perfectly possible, but this novel is based on one journey taken by Frank in 1962. He met a vibrant red headed girl, who seemed unlike anyone he had ever met before, and sadly since. He has been travelling on the bus for the sixty years from that meeting, whenever his life and career have allowed, looking for a girl who he lost the phone number for, but has occupied his memory ever since. Another encounter, with a despondent and desperate young woman called Libby, in 2022, sparks off a hunt for the original girl with a sketchbook. 

This is a beautifully written book, which tells the story of an unusual search from the point of view of a young woman whose situation could be overwhelming, were it not for the distraction of Frank and his plight. The story follows her reaction to being spoken to by an elderly man on a bus, which she finds significance in even when she has been rendered homeless and jobless by her boyfriend who suddenly announced their relationship was over. I found this a credible situation, and Libby’s feelings of shock and even guilt are understandable. The characters in this novel have such richness and depth, even though they may not be central to the novel. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Libby’s sister Rebecca, and her firm manner over her expectations of Libby’s stay. There are other characters whose depictions are generous and carefully written, with a real sense of life. 

The situation that Frank finds himself in is probably difficult to imagine in a world of mobile phones, social media and so many ways of tracking people down, but it reminded me that for so many older people,such innovations are tricky to understand. This book has so many fascinating things to say about community, about the proximity of people on public transport that usually means very little, but can take on whole new significance. It is obviously a heart felt book, as Frank is shown as beginning to lose his ability to cope and remember. Libby is also hurt and confused, and grasps some of the hope that new friends and companions can impart. Both Frank and Libby are struggling with their families expectations, holding on to the slim hope of finding the special person who changed at least one life. 

This is such a beautifully written book that has so much to say about the power of memory, of hope, and friendship. I found it a compelling read which carried me along as I was so keen to discover what would happen with each of the characters. I found the whole description of travelling on the bus enticing! I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this fascinating and lovely book.and recommend it to anyone who enjoys positive stories written with real feeling.