How to Belong by Sarah Franklin – the story of two women and a small community on the edge of a forest

How to Belong by Sarah Franklin

This is a book full of insight into unusual situations firmly anchored to the realities of everyday life. Based on two lives that are brought together by chance rather than choice, Jo and Tessa are opposites that somehow link. It is the stories of their two lives in their contexts, how the actions and attitudes of others have shaped them, how they have seized opportunities which are now perhaps not what they want. I found their occupations fascinating; Jo begins the novel as a barrister, finding it frustrating and not having the real effects on lives that she had hoped. Tessa is a farrier, shoeing horses in the Forest of Dean, worrying about her health. Jo wants to make a change to her own life, to return to the family butchers business that her parents want to sell. As past loves and lives crowd into the minds of the two women, they look about them and see their world in a new way and from a new perspective. 

This is a book written with care and appreciation of life in a forest, as well as life in a small town which is made special by a particular shop. Franklin has made a superb job of capturing some of the challenges that confront women in contemporary society and how they may react. It looks at the strain of illness, of growing up aware of difference, and long term guilt. It also shows awareness of the pressures of small town life, but also the isolation of living in London. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this very special novel. 

The book begins with the scene in Butler’s butchers’ shop a few days before Christmas, as Jo has returned home from London. The large number of people who crowd in are not only interested in buying meat; they are there for the special atmosphere, the tots of sherry, the friendship expressed by Jo’s parents. Jo finds it especially significant as this is the last Christmas that they intend to be in the shop, as they have decided to move near to her brother. Having felt dissatisfied with her life in London, dealing with many cases that she feels had made little difference, she suddenly feels tempted to move back, take over the shop, return to her old life. Tessa meanwhile is working with her portable anvil at a riding stable, when a sudden shock has a dangerous effect on her. She recovers, but realises that it means another attack in a series which is getting worse. Arranging her life to reduce risk brings problems, and it means that she must find a lodger. When Jo moves into the small cottage with her, it will be difficult to keep her fears secret. Can the two women survive and thrive in a small place?

As other people have their say on the women’s situation, like Liam, the women begin to deal with the challenges. This is a detailed and realistic book which acknowledges that people have unspoken struggles, and I found it a deeply personal book which offers real insight into contemporary lives. I found Tessa’s situation particularly moving, with her doubts, unknown illness and much else. The descriptions of the work of a farrier are detailed and fascinating. I enjoyed this book of life in a small community, of love of various kinds, of the difficulty of explaining genuine feelings. I recommend it as a book which feels truthful and offers a real insight into women’s lives.