Book Review: Maria In The Moon

Maria In The Moon, by Louise Beech, is a story that explores the lasting effects of childhood trauma. Set in Hull following the devastating floods of 1997, the protagonist is a young woman named Catherine-Maria who works the night shift in a care home and volunteers at a telephone crisis helpline by day. She struggles to sleep, suffers nightmares, and pushes anyone who tries to get close to her away. She is awkward, clumsy and acerbic, struggling with memory loss, particularly from childhood where time frames have become muddled or vanished completely.

Catherine is living in a small flat with a friend, Fern, while her home, damaged by the floods, is dried out and repaired. She has recently separated from her boyfriend, another disappointment for her mother to bear. Mother and Catherine suffer a fraught relationship; words have been spoken in anger that are hard to forgive.

Old photographs, terms of endearment from strangers, and experiences at the helpline trigger vague recollections that Catherine’s family are unwilling to adequately explain. Eventually Catherine faces her own crisis and, overnight, the lost memories flood back. What she chooses to do with her newfound knowledge will define where she takes her life from here. This personal damage will be harder to repair.

Grief creates a sense of isolation resulting in blinkered understanding of other’s needs. Reactions to Catherine’s memories risk further rifts with family and friends. These relationships are astutely depicted, providing wit alongside the pain. Catherine’s life is raw and messy but the portrayal is compelling if heartbreaking.

The writing achieves an impressive balance between dark humour and a sympathetic yet honest depiction of the most shocking family betrayal. Expressive and affecting this is a story rich in humanity; traumatic yet somehow uplifting.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This post is a stop on the Maria In The Moon Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Maria In The Moon is published by Orenda Books.

Book Review: The Mountain in my Shoe

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The Mountain in my Shoe, by Louise Beech, tells the story of Conor Jordan, a ten year old boy from Hull who has been in multiple care homes throughout his short life and who has now gone missing. Also missing is his Life Book, a work in progress containing details of his fragmented childhood, created as a substitute for the memories parents share with their children. The book had been taken home by Bernadette, a young woman who volunteered to be Conor’s friend and who he has grown to trust. She cannot understand where the book has gone as only she and her husband, Richard, have been in their flat where it was hidden. Richard is a man who adheres to a strict routine but this evening he hasn’t come home from work. It seems that he too may be missing.

Bernadette is more concerned about Conor than Richard. She is angry with her controlling husband for choosing this night to disappear. She had finally plucked up the courage to tell him that she was leaving their marriage, had packed her bags and tidied their flat in readiness for her departure. It was only when she went to put the Life Book in her case that she realised it had gone.

Bernadette doesn’t have many friends. Richard discouraged her from going out other than to see to his needs. Her voluntary work has been her carefully guarded secret. She confided in Conor’s foster carer, Anne, that she was unhappy in her marriage. Now, during a fraught evening spent briefing the police and then searching for the missing boy, she opens up about her lonely personal life and plans for change.

Excerpts from the Life Book give details of Conor’s past. It makes for heartbreaking reading. The boy has been shunted from pillar to post through no fault of his own. His few years with Anne have been the most stable he has experienced. He is teased in school for his lack of family, and dreams of spending more time with his troubled birth mother. He wants to know who his father is. The only person he can open up to fully is his best friend, Sophie. Sophie knows how to keep secrets and does not withhold information from him as adults do.

The writing evokes the fear and confusion of a situation all parents dread, that their child should fail to come home from school. As darkness falls all are trying their best to stay positive. Richard’s whereabouts are still unknown but Bernadette cannot bring herself to care.

The writing is gentle yet delves deep into complex family dynamics. In seeing events recounted through the eyes of adults and then a child the reader is reminded that young people see both more and less than they are often credited with. Their priorities differ but they can detect strained atmospheres better than many of their elders. They struggle at times to understand that circumstances do not revolve around them. Many adults live in denial, constructing their own truths based on the life they desire. Each is the centre of their own personal universe.

The plot threads spiral out and are then woven back in to provide a tapestry of hurts never quite healed. In places I could not hold back the tears yet the strength found by the characters to move forward make this an uplifting read.

Conor is a convincing sometimes indecorous but nevertheless likeable creation. He may be troublesome in school, display occasional aggression, but it is hard not to be moved by his predicament. Books such as this can help generate empathy for the many Conors in the real world.

I enjoyed this book for its compassion and perception. It is a beautiful, heartfelt read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This review is a stop on The Mountain in my Shoe Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

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The Mountain in my Shoe is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: How to be Brave

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How to be Brave, by Louise Beech, is a book that I nearly gave up on. I am glad that I did not. When I had read the first hundred pages, the length of time I give a book to grab me, all I could see was the kind of self-absorbed mother I know only too well. Her daughter was behaving like a brat yet she appeared unable to look beyond her precious little snowflake, wronged by a world too blind to recognise such unique wonderfulness and therefore ready to indulge misbehaviour. Is there any mother who cannot see qualities in her child to which the world appears unappreciative? Most will never have to deal with this child developing a life changing illness; who knows how any of us would react to such a shift?

The tale opens at Halloween. Natalie is living alone with her truculent, nine year old daughter, Rose; her husband is on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Rose has been stroppy since he left, disturbing Natalie’s sleep to complain of thirst and copying her mother’s habit of copious swearing. As they prepare to go out Trick or Treating, Rose collapses onto the kitchen floor. She is rushed to hospital where she is diagnosed with diabetes.

As Natalie and Rose struggle to come to terms with a lifetime of regular blood tests and injections a shadowy figure enters their lives. The reader may decide if he is a ghost or a dream but Colin’s presence helps our protagonists through these difficult days. They settle into a routine punctured by numerous battles of will. Natalie persists in babying her daughter who fights through her mother’s preconceptions, desperate to be heard as an individual. What holds them together is a story they start to share woven from imagination, memories and family memorobilia found languishing in a shed where Rose flees for sanctuary.

The story is that of Colin, Natalie’s long dead Granddad. At the end of the Second World War, his ship was torpedoed and he was stranded in a lifeboat for fifty days. Natalie recreates his ordeal from his diary and newspaper cuttings. Her narrative is told in parallel with the present day tale.

Natalie’s personal story is the one that resonated. It was her neediness and self absorption that nearly turned me away, yet as she came to understand how she was behaving the harshness with which she judged herself struck a chord. Mothers are so used to society blaming them for their children’s faults while their children heap blame on them for all their woes. It is little wonder that mothers also berate themselves.

Natalie changes as the story progresses. She recognises that she must allow Rose to move on with her life and that, even though Rose is the centre of Natalie’s life, Natalie is not at the centre of Rose’s. Natalie stops using childish words in her stories, stops trying to protect Rose from every harsh reality of life. She still makes promises that she cannot guarantee to keep and says ‘We’ll see’ rather than ‘No’, but she is starting to find honesty, and to this Rose responds.

Natalie and Rose use Colin’s diary in the same way believers use a bible, dipping in for inspiration and finding text they can interpret as messages to help them through their days. Natalie rebuffs the kindness offered by a neighbour whose efforts are described as ‘bothering them’; she turns away offers of assistance from family and friends; perhaps she conjures up a supernatural presence as the only kind of help she can accept as it will never expect her to reciprocate.

I found it hard to like Natalie until well into the book when I realised that the author was portraying her in the harshest of lights. Allowances were made for Rose’s bad behaviour, and for Colin’s various acts of desperation, but no slack was offered for Natalie’s flaws. I empathised with her loneliness and a mother’s tendency to self-flagellate.

This is a story woven from the author’s personal experience and is one of hope despite devastating challenges. It matters little if Colin actually appeared to them; his story inspired and it is that which was needed at such a difficult time.

The initial build up set a scene necessary for understanding; when finished a powerful story lingers. The writing shifted my perception as the story progressed, reminding me how easy it is to jump to judgement rather than taking the time to learn why others behave as they do. Sometimes it is necessary to look through a different lens to enable us to deal with ourselves and with those who rely on us to accept and understand. One must be brave to grant loved ones their freedom.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.