A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes – The past as a long hot summer

“We are all about secrets in this family”. Every family has its secrets, but in this novel they combine with a child’s view of the world and very adult desire for revenge to present a traumatic yet touching picture of a long ago summer which is full of drama and incident. The impact on the present of events twelve years previously means that nothing and no one is as it seems. Growing up in 1970s Britain was challenging enough, but the small town here depicted in the long hot dry summer of 1976 is an unforgiving place when people behave in unconventional ways. Bullying children is one element, but when this becomes mixed up with adult fear and hatred the claustrophobia of a community would become unbearable, if it was not for the essential spark of human kindness which survives, even when it comes at a high cost. I was happy to receive a copy of this book which gives such a strong picture of late twentieth century life.

Robyn, the “Little Bird” of the title, is a nine year old girl during the summer of 1976. She spends idyllic days at the pool with her much loved older brother Kit, sometimes her unconventional mum and her friend Debbie. Her family is made complete by Matthew, who is her mum’s partner. There are problems, however, as the “WendyCarols”, older girls bully her, and her mother has a disturbing way of inviting strange women who weep into the house. When Robyn is an unwilling witness to an altercation between her mum and Mr Mace over one such woman and her son, the whole situation suddenly becomes complicated. Worse still, Robyn has been approached by a man in a cowboy hat who seems keen to upset her family by handing over mysterious items. The scene then moves to 1988, when Kit and Robyn return to the family home which has apparently stood empty for twelve years, with their belongings boxed up. It becomes obvious that Robyn and to an extent Kit are desperate to find something or someone, even as it becomes obvious that there are those in the small town who are angered by their return. Robyn searches archives and places newspaper advertisements as the scene swops between the two years, but in both there are deep feelings and even violence.

This is not a wholly grim tale. There are some decent people in both time frames, willing to risk much for others. There is a sense of nostalgia for a childhood of sun and parties, drawing sketches and being with friends. Hope for resolution propels the narrative, as the reader and the participants both discover the truth together. This is a sensitively written book of long held grudges and fear, with perhaps a little too much violence which tends to dilute the effect. Generally I found this book moving and absorbing, and it certainly maintained my interest throughout. The recent past is a fascinating study here and the picture of childhood confusion is well created.

It is a real pleasure to take part in the blog tour for this book, and I found this an engaging story, well written and creating a very full atmosphere.

Meanwhile, over at http://www.northernvicar.co.uk he seems to have started posting furiously – I am struggling to keep up!