Book Review: You Never Told Me

You Never Told Me, by Sarah Jasmon, is a story of the pulls and disconnects inherent within families. Parents work hard to provide what they believe is best for their offspring without comprehending the blinkered lens through which they regard an ever-changing world. Decisions made reverberate across decades leading to schisms where appreciation was expected. Children struggle to regard parents as individuals rather than providers of support, in whatever form necessary. They resent criticism or any attempt to take control of decisions. Siblings grow jealous when caught in a net of duty when another appears to have achieved freedom and, perhaps worse, greater admiration.

The story opens on a Thai ferry where a hungover Charlie is returning from a disappointing party weekend at an island getaway with colleagues from the language school where she has secured temporary work. Charlie is on a sort of gap year, despite being a decade older than most who partake of this indulgence. She ran away from the prospect of the life she was expected to lead: marriage to her loving, long term boyfriend; paying off the mortgage on the house they bought together; caring for their dog. She is coming to realise that her current hand to mouth existence in this hot and sticky place is not the answer to her restlessness, and that maybe it is time to return to England.

Any potential for her usual prevarication is removed when she receives a message from her sister that their mother has been hospitalised. Charlie’s contingency planning for a need to pay for an emergency flight is non-existent. She appears to be living her life in the moment with no sense of what to do should her trajectory change. Not for the only time in the story, a kindly stranger steps in to help. She arrives back in Sheffield safely, albeit with minimal luggage and no money. By the time she walks to the hospital, her mother has died.

Charlie’s sister, Eleanor, is capable of taking charge – this despite, or perhaps because of, also having to deal with her father, husband and two young children. She cooks meals for Charlie who has installed herself in her childhood bedroom and borrowed clothes left by their mother. Charlie goes through the motions of each day without making plans. When it is announced that the family home is to be sold and that their father will move in with Eleanor, Charlie understands she must move forward but appears to have no idea how. Once again, her predicament is resolved thanks to the actions of others. Unbeknown to her daughters, their mother had purchased a canal boat. Charlie moves to this until she can work out what she now wants.

The mother, Britta, is portrayed as a bland and submissive character so her secrets – especially the uncharacteristic purchase of a boat – intrigue her daughters. Charlie resolves to dig further using the few clues uncovered. Eleanor is obviously struggling to spin all the plates she has been handed. Whilst supportive of her sister there is still resentment at the way Charlie upped and left for Thailand.

And then there is Max, the jilted fiancé, living in the joint owned house that he was left paying for, along with their dog who was left in his care. Charlie now wants her share of the house. And she wants the dog. All readers will get behind the dog’s right to her best life.

The main plot involves the slow uncovering of Britta’s background. This is well presented and structured. There are a few coincidences that help in Charlie’s investigations along the way, but also sufficient within the threads to maintain reader engagement. Depth is added through character development, especially around the familial relationships.

The story is told from Charlie’s point of view but in such a way as to offer balance. I became irritated by her constantly jangling nerves leading to loss of concentration, having to remind myself she was grieving. I wanted to tell her that headaches and inability to focus could be due to her apparent inability to feed herself, and then wondered how many people in her life had felt compelled to try to voice such unasked for advice. As usual I did not enjoy the sex scene but concede that it added another aspect to her backstory.

Charlie connects with her elder niece, Martha, who she recognises as needing a friend. I thought it a shame that even the little that was asked for – and promised – went largely undelivered. I understood the wider reasoning for inclusion within the plot but there is still a desire for children to be listened to and treated fairly; perhaps we all harbour scars from being ignored by adults with their skewed priorities.

One important thread that shines through is the portrayal of life on the canal. Despite her apparent flakiness (the escape to Thailand must have appeared like a bolt from the blue to her family), Charlie manages to pick up quickly how to manage a boat, largely thanks to the generosity of other canal people. Living on the water, by a public towpath, takes some getting used to. Charlie’s appreciation of her surroundings – its disconnect from life on land despite their proximity – is beautifully rendered. Wider attitudes to crusty canal folk is touched upon lightly.

The writing and pace are fluent and well balanced (although I did wonder from time to time what had been cut during editing). The nuances of family life are presented in a multitude of forms and from several points of view. The denouement neatens the weave of threads without offering solutions that are too machine perfect. This book was a pleasure to read.

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

Gig Review: Author Talk by Sarah Jasmon

Yesterday I had a delightfully bookish day attending not one but two literary events where I got to meet some of the authors I have featured on my blog.

For the first of these I returned to a town I worked in some twenty years ago. Swindon does not appear to have changed markedly in that time, but it has acquired a fabulous new library.

As part of an initiative run by Literature Works (the literature development charity for South West England and Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation) called Reading Passport (a partnership between South West Regional Library Service, Literature Works, the Royal Literary Fund, and supported by Read South West) the library had organised an author talk by one time local girl, Sarah Jasmon, whose debut novel, ‘The Summer of Secrets’, was published earlier this year. I overheard one of the organisers commenting that the talk was one of the best attended in the series.

When I arrived Sarah was working her way around the room chatting to the various groups of attendees. It was lovely to see an author being so open and friendly, and it set the tone for what was to be a captivating hour.

After the introductions Sarah gave a reading from her book before going on to tell the audience about her journey from aspiring to published author.

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Although she had been tinkering with writing for many years, it wasn’t until she enrolled in a Creative Writing MA, just before her fortieth birthday, that she succeeded in completing a novel. Sarah talked of the advice she was given on the course, that beautiful prose is all very well but a plot requires that things happen along the way. She talked of the complexity of her initial draft and how this was simplified during rewrites, how she found her voice and ended up in the genre of contemporary fiction.

Sarah admits to a degree of luck in finding both an editor and an agent while her novel was still in early format. Listening to her story it is clear that she also put in the groundwork herself, not just with writing a good book but in being willing to pitch it to the publishing industry whenever she had the opportunity.

From the questions being asked it appeared that there were many writers in the room keen to learn from Sarah’s experiences. They listened attentively as she spoke of the importance of networking, social media, perfecting what she called an elevator pitch, the submissions process, working with both editor and publisher, and an author’s input into the packaging of the finished work. It would seem that writing a book is only the beginning, that to become a published author also requires what sounded very much like standard business skills.

One comment in particular stayed with me. Sarah talked of always thinking the next milestone was the one that would get her to where she wanted to be: finishing her novel; finding an agent; signing a book deal; seeing her book published; meeting a sales target. Sometimes, she said, it is necessary to just enjoy where she is.

After the event a good number of books were sold, Sarah taking the time to sign each one and to chat to her eager readers. I introduced myself and felt chuffed when she knew who I was. It was lovely to meet such a friendly and personable author, and she made me feel truly welcome.

12105974_10201072154162072_8419373414229845860_n   Summer of Secrets Front Cover

 

 

Guest Post: Sarah Jasmon

Sarah Jasmon Author Photo

Published earlier this month by Black Swan (a Transworld imprint), ‘The Summer of Secrets’ is author Sarah Jasmon’s debut. I was fortunate enough to be sent a copy by the Curtis Brown Book Group (you may read my review by clicking here) and was then invited to discuss the book at an on line meetup. Sarah took the time to answer a lot of questions!

As I said in my review, I do not quite understand why Helen’s life was impacted to such a degree by the events revealed. I am therefore delighted that, in this guest post, Sarah focuses on the relationships between her characters. Do you remember the summer you were sixteen? I know I do.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Sarah Jasmon.

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The Summer of Secrets is mostly about friendship, about the intensity of those early proto-love affairs, when you find a soulmate who, for a season, becomes your constant companion. Think of films like Me Without You, or almost any story about high school. (In trying to narrow the choice down, I came across this excellent article by Rowan Pelling: The darker side of female friendship – Telegraph.) Such friendships tend to fizzle out in the end, with one or both participants moving on to different relationships and wider interests. In film and fiction, and occasionally in real life, they move into darker territory.

Helen and Victoria are not equal partners in their friendship. Helen has been unhappy at school, and is facing a summer with little interaction outside of her home environment. She is wary of Victoria even as she is dazzled by her, constantly on the lookout for snubs and dismissal. The younger sibling, Pippa, is safe in comparison, an uncomplicated child with a sweet nature. Victoria is tough, world-weary and single-minded. She is happy to take up with Helen whilst no-one else is available, but she’s not a friend to rely upon. She is exciting, though, her plans always hovering on the outer edge of acceptable.

It’s this imbalance that stops the friendship from becoming dangerously intense. Victoria is careless and occasionally cruel, but not malicious. Someone asked me the other day if I thought that, had the summer not ended in the way it did, would Victoria and Helen stayed in touch? And I think they wouldn’t. Victoria would have left, shedding Helen without much regret. Helen would have taken time to recover, but would have ended up a stronger person, with wider horizons. Except that fiction is never that straightforward.

The book is also about absent parents, and the effect that can have on events. I’ve always liked how children’s fiction allows for total freedom. The Famous Five are forever left to their own devices whilst parents go abroad, or find themselves too busy with important work to take any notice of what the children are doing. Arthur Ransome makes sure that the Swallows and the Amazons are without supervision, Just William goes out in the morning and evades the adults with chaotic consequences. I wanted to capture some of this release.

In any other summer of her life, Helen would have been unable to follow Victoria in the way she does. Her mother’s absence and her father’s self-absorbed depression are not her normal experience, unlike the Dover family with their long-lost father and the fragile mother who is always at least one remove from reality. But at the end of the summer, when everything has fallen apart, it’s Helen who is left with no emotional safety net. Her mother, having been absent, is now permanently excluded from her confidence. There is no return to normal, no resolution.

Another question that’s often asked is how can Helen have forgotten what happened so completely? I’m not going to answer that: being vague is the author’s prerogative after all! What I will say is that I think trauma and a guilty sense of half-recognised responsibility, coupled with shock and sudden change in circumstance, can lead to suppression. Helen has no-one to talk to, no fresh air or perspective to make the unthinkable into a manageable thought. She turns in on herself instead, and packs everything away. When we meet her as an adult, the person she was that summer is encased in a hard shell and hidden deep inside.

Meeting Victoria again forces her to chip away at that protected centre. I know what I think happens afterwards, but you’ll have to decide for yourself. Let me know.

Summer of Secrets Front Cover

This post is the final stop on The Summer of Secrets Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below.

Sarah-Jasmon-Blog-Tour

If you would like to know more about this author, her website may be found here: Sarah Jasmon – All the best writers live on boats.

Book Review: The Summer of Secrets

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The Summer of Secrets, by Sarah Jasmon, is simmering, evocative and charged with an undercurrent of apprehension. The author perfectly captures the concerns of the teenage protagonist, Helen, as she struggles to deal with her parents’ separation and rejection by her peers. When the bohemian Dover family appear on Helen’s doorstep it is no surprise that she is drawn to them. Their friendship will prove devastating for both families.

Helen is sixteen years old and is looking forward to a summer of peace and freedom. Home life has been chaotic since her mother left, her father seeking solace in drink. Helen welcomes the cessation of their bitter rows, and the relaxation of her mother’s strictly imposed orderliness. She is angry and lonely but also relieved.

Lying on the grass in her garden by the canal Helen wonders how she will fill the balmy days ahead. Her question is answered when a young girl unexpectedly appears in her hedge. Thus she meets the Dovers, who she discovers have recently moved into a nearby cottage, and is drawn to their enigmatic lives.

Victoria Dover is of a similar age to Helen and they soon become friends. They are not, however, equals. Victoria relishes her dominance, forever pushing at Helen’s trained reticence. As the summer progresses Helen ingratiates herself with the whole family before Victoria starts to push her away.

The author intersperses the story of the summer of 1983 with a narrative set thirty years later. Forty-six year old Helen spots a poster on the wall of new art gallery advertising an exhibition of photographs by award winning Victoria Dover. We learn that she has neither seen nor heard from any of the Dover family since that fateful summer, a summer that has scarred her life.

Helen’s life pivots on a night near the end of the summer, which she can barely remember. As the tension builds the reader knows that some tragedy is about to unfold. The denouement does not disappoint.

The byline on the cover of this book reads ‘One day she was there… And the next she was gone’. I did not feel that this represented what the story was about. It is a coming of age tale; it was not just Victoria that Helen lost.

It was good to be reminded that in 1983 there could be ramshackle cottages by an overgrown and neglected canal, before developers saw potential and tidied nature away. Likewise children could run free, time unfilled by planned activities not viewed as wasted. It is redolent of a time that is gone.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I do not quite understand why Helen’s life was impacted to such a degree by the events revealed, shocking as they were. I do not quite understand why she did not seek answers sooner. Perhaps this is the point. The denouement suggests that it was everyone else’s selfish inability to understand Helen’s needs which led to the cataclysmic outcome.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group