The Other Mrs Walker, by Mary Paulson-Ellis, is a story of family secrets, lives thwarted, and objects that speak from beyond the grave.
Margaret Penny, at close to fifty years old, returns to her elderly mother’s small flat in Edinburgh with no money, few possessions and fewer prospects. Her life has not turned out as she had hoped when she escaped to London without warning some thirty years previously. Her mother offers neither a welcome nor a rejection, she has never been one to share her thoughts. Her daughter learned young to follow her example: ‘tell no one’, ‘leave no trace’.
The two women attend the funeral of a local indigent where it is suggested that Margaret find work with the council tracing the family and assets of those who die alone that a funeral may be paid for. She is assigned an old woman, Mrs Walker, recently arrived in Edinburgh and found dead in her living room chair.
Margaret searches for clues as to who Mrs Walker was but all she finds are random objects in a freezing flat which reminds her of her mother’s home. She requires formal identification, paperwork, but has no hint of even a first name. She ponders her own nebulous past and uncertain future.
The story moves backwards and forwards to various years between 1929 and 2011. Snapshots of key incidents in the lives of the Walkers and Pennys are offered. It becomes clear early on that there are familial links but what they are is a mystery to be solved.
It begins with a tragedy – the death of two beautiful twins. What follows involves much that is untoward. There is betrayal, abandonment, thievery of home, possessions and children. Times were hard and love scarce. Subsistence was secured by nefarious means.
The jumping around in time and the style of writing offers the reader jigsaw puzzle pieces, knowledge gleaned ahead of and in more depth than is uncovered by Margaret. Each episode narrated provides clues as to who the protagonists were and are, and to why the many secrets have been kept.
There is a sense of isolation in the lives lived, a depth of sadness in what is left behind be it people or things. The picture painted of humanity is mordant, yet the girls in the story retain an affecting hopefulness as each works to escape the incarceration of their circumstances.
This is not a book to be rushed and offers much to consider. An intelligent but never difficult read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Mantle.