“None of the feelings that usually accompanied this transition materialised. I didn’t get the prickly dread at the thought of seeing my mother, or the dull sinking feeling that I was travelling back in time to a place I no longer belonged, that I was getting further and further away from my real life, my world, leaving the present and future behind, that Llangoroth was just a model made out of the past.”
Falling Leaves, by Stefan Mohamed, is a story of time travel. Not of the sort associated with Doctor Who but rather that of aging, and memory, and the pivotal moments in life that are not recognised as such until considered with the benefit of hindsight.
The story opens with a disturbing dream. Twenty-three year old Vanessa, living in London in a gone stale relationship with Stuart, wakes up crying tears of grief yet cannot recall why. She is a graduate and aspiring writer working shifts at a cinema in an attempt to pay her share of the rent. When she tries to write to calm her anxious mind, strange paragraphs flow, vivid and incoherent.
Vanessa contacts her good friend, Alice, but cannot make sense of how she is feeling. Later she has a frightening vision of herself bleeding that quickly disappears. She knows that she has to make changes to her life but baulks at the effort this would entail. She is distracted by a phone call from her beloved Aunt Pauline who is still living in their hometown in Wales. An old friend of Vanessa’s who disappeared without trace seven years ago has turned up on Pauline’s doorstep. Mark looks and dresses exactly as he did when he was sixteen.
Vanessa understands that what Pauline is telling her is impossible but also that she must see for herself this returned boy. When her boss at work will not grant her time off Vanessa quits, pushing aside the future difficulties this will create. Evading Stuart’s questions she travels to Llangoroth, her mind filled with memories of the life she lived with Mark as a teenager. The sense of loss she suffered when he disappeared all but destroyed her, and many of her other relationships.
Pauline, Vanessa and Mark struggle to make sense of the situation so seek answers to some of their questions from Mark’s father. Still traumatised from the secrets and hurt he has been harbouring, his reactions put them in peril. Mark is showing signs of infirmity and Vanessa is still suffering visions. The pair flee to the anonymity of London but in doing so put Stuart and Alice in danger.
It took me some time to connect with the voice of the protagonist. Her language and attitude are that of a contemporary, literate twenty-something year old adult, filled with anger and angst, voicing concern for the future yet often apathetic. Vanessa’s teenage self had indulged in the rave scene and drugs, largely detaching herself from family concerns. Music plays a role, something that may appeal to those with more up to date knowledge than I possess.
As the story unfolds and the tension mounts the tale becomes less about character, becoming more plot driven. It is necessary to indulge the weirder elements in order to enjoy this progression.
Once the scene had been set this became a fast moving and engaging adventure that will appeal to those who enjoyed the author’s Bitter Sixteen trilogy. The exploration of the effects interactions have on others, and of the damage caused by dogmatic beliefs added interest – serious issues are explored in a story that never appears to take itself too seriously.
The style and zest of the prose make this an entertaining, dynamic read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.