This book all but broke me with its mix of lonely sorrow and dippy behaviour. It tells the story of Rachel, a mother whose much wanted son, Luke, died in the womb at full term. Structured as a series of emails, Rachel writes to her dead child about her daily routine – people she encounters, how she is thinking and feeling. Mostly set over a five month period, it opens just a couple of weeks after Luke’s stillbirth. Rachel is on maternity leave and grieving deeply. What comes to the fore is how difficult it is to say anything appropriate to those suffering such a devastating experience. Rachel is upset by well meaning friends who use words she finds empty, yet there is no hint as to how one may do better – other than to never say the death of a child happened for a reason.
Rachel lives in London close to both her parents and her in-laws. She is married to Ed and they are comfortably off materially. The marriage appears to be a happy one although the loss of their child has, obviously, taken its toll on both of them. Ed is doing his best to support his wife but she is not sharing with him her coping mechanisms.
On the day Rachel discovered she was pregnant, while travelling by tube to meet Ed and give him the news they had both longed for, she prevented a potential suicide. Although she had no further contact with the young man involved, she now gets it into her head that Luke died because, due to her actions, he lived. She sets out to track the man down and in doing so meets Lola, an underground worker, and her feisty seven year old daughter, Josephine.
In what must be a breach of protocol, Lola provides Rachel with the details recorded about the young man on the day of the incident, when he tried to jump in front of a train. Internet searches enable Rachel to track him down remarkably easily. Her behaviour towards him – Ben – although well meant verge on stalking and harassment. Somewhat surprisingly, he mostly puts up with this.
Lola also allows Rachel into her life, entrusting her with Josephine after just a short acquaintanceship. Rachel turns to these strangers rather than her family, who have proved themselves painfully tone deaf to her current needs. She dreams up schemes to ‘help’ give Ben a better life, as a mother might her grown child. Rachel treats him as her mother treats her – overpowering with good intentions without taking in and adjusting for negative reactions.
The author suffered the heartbreak of a stillbirth so could write aspects of this work of fiction from personal experience. Knowing this undoubtedly coloured how I read the tale – why I tried to accept that certain responses might realistically occur. Rachel’s grief is palpable which makes it hard to condemn her inappropriate behaviour. Nevertheless, how she forces her plans and needs on Ben made me squirm.
Structuring the story as emails maintains pace, providing pithy updates on Rachel’s day to day plans and activities. The writing throughout is focused and heartfelt. Rachel’s dealings with her wider family provide lessons in how not to treat the recently bereaved. However, certain plot developments felt contrived, particularly in setting up for the denouement. It was not this that I found almost too difficult to read. I came close to abandoning the book several times because of how vexed it made me feel.
Rachel undoubtedly deserves much sympathy but I still found her character irritating – particularly how she used her wealth, and treated Ed. The depiction of her in-laws came across as two-dimensionally stereotyped – insular, instagrammable, yummy mummy and self-entitled granny – the oft depicted privileged and blinkered London set. Ed was developed better, highlighting how lonely grief can be even within a loving relationship. Lola’s reaction to Rachel, given their differing circumstances and the fact that she too had family close and willing to help, was hard to give credence to – I was curious about how Rachel made her feel with the over the top gifts to Josephine. Also, this is possibly the only story I have ever read where a dog died and I just couldn’t care.
Other reviewers have written about how much they enjoyed this tale. Some found humour amidst the poignancy. I wanted more depth and less ditzy behaviour from a protagonist supposedly successful career-wise – even if knocked sideways by tragedy. This story simply wasn’t for me.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.