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.