Helen and the Grandbees by Alex Morrall
Honesty, help and hope are three themes of this spirited contemporary novel of the experience of parenthood. Helen’s story can be seen as one of desperation, lack of control and struggle, but also the conviction that something can be done for the woman she calls her bee, and her two grandbees. Indeed, names are important in this vivid novel of domestic interiors and memories. Helen is not called “mother” or “mum” by her daughter, and she struggles to refer to the person she called Lily is now determined to be Ingrid. Helen begins with the claustrophobia of family life as she reflects on her relationship with her parents, which moves onto the feeling of control over her environment as she lives in a completely clean flat. What has happened to her in the past, what is happening to her in the present and what she imagines will happen in the future is always seen in relation to others, their moods and abilities. This is a novel which seeks to convey the intensity of feeling in one woman’s life, even if she seeks to be self effacing. Plaintive, yearning and questioning, this writer is able to convey so much in small descriptions of setting and behaviour, it is a successful book of a woman’s life. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this effective novel.
This novel records something of a girl’s desperation to leave her family home, which is transfigured by emotion. As she runs away, she is surprised by a baby, which leads to her understandable confusion and resolve to keep the flat clean without her bee, who she has called Lily. An empty time of dreams and memories ends when Lily/ Ingrid turns up out of the blue, full of facts about her adoptive parents, somewhat heedless of the effects of her words on Helen, as she takes in the shabby, lonely conditions in which she lives. As the novel proceeds it becomes obvious that Lily is demanding, perhaps unaware of what she already has in her life. Helen’s aware of her fragility and her unwillingness to reveal much of her past, which she comes to realise means that Lily will be angry with her. She is surprised at the strength of the protectiveness that she feels for Lily, her helplessness in the face of this woman who she only meets as an adult, seemingly making decisions that she cannot understand. That are times when Helen recognises that she is happy, content to what she is allowed to do, but always there is the nagging fear that her bee, and her grandbees, will go away from her.
The author has made a wonderful job of creating the character of Helen with all her insecurities but also her bravery in confronting what she thinks she must do to protect others. I also thought that her depiction of the teenage Aisha is well handled in the context of challenging relationships, especially in echoing some of the fears that Helen has experienced. This book handles realistically the problems of relationships defined by passing comments, facial expressions and unsaid questions. It is a book full of insight, and compassion, and I recommend this deeply personal novel.