The Betrayals, Fiona Neill

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After the incredible conclusion to Blood Sisters by Jane Corry, I knew that my next book was going to be a disappointment no matter what. I was surprised, therefore, to find that I didn’t mind Fiona Neill’s cross between mystery fiction and teen angst fiction, but also a bit disappointed at the mundane nature of it.

The Premise

Nick and Rosie were happy until the breakdown of their best friends’ marriage led to Nick falling in love with Lisa and the life long friendship of their children falling apart. Or were they? Daughter Daisy is in an ongoing fight with OCD, brought on by her obsessive nature and the tumultuous changes of her teenage years. Son Max holds himself responsible for the consequences of their final holiday together in Norfolk. But Lisa is dying, and she wants to see Rosie one last time, and she has something to tell her that can’t be shared by letter. The children struggle to protect their mother while their own memories, sanity and motives are called into question as Lisa slowly grows more and more ill.

The Verdict

This was less a novel about betrayal and more a novel about the fallibility of memory. From the outset, the same moment is presented by one character before being recalled in a mildly different way by another character. This creates an immediate atmosphere of doubt as the reader isn’t sure whether the children are remembering things differently, or their parents. This could actually have been done very subtly and very well, but Neill over-plays her hand by making Nick a research specialist into the fallibility of memory and its pitfalls. It is repeated far too often for comfort, meaning that Neill signposts the most impressive part of the plot of the narrative far too early, and far to obviously. As a result, the ultimate revelation that the event that Daisy witnessed that pushed her over the edge didn’t actually happen as she remembered it a massive anticlimax, and as a result it is not dealt with as well as it could have been.

Neill’s characterisation is thorough, but bland. Nick’s infidelity is repeated, and this is the great secret that Lisa wants to share with Rosie. It, like Daisy’s realisation, was a huge anticlimax. I felt like Neill had been building up to more and my expectations weren’t quite met. The most well developed character was most definitely Max, who showed progression from blindly supporting his sister to focusing on his own life at the expense of his family. He is still relatively uncomplicated, however, and this meant that I felt ambivalent towards him rather than sympathetic.

What Neill does do well, however, is portray Daisy’s OCD. Whilst Daisy herself is disappointingly two dimensional, the portrayal of her illness is heart wrenching, thought provoking and genuine. I hope that Neill did thorough research into the condition before using it as a narrative ploy, because I started reading the book with very little knowledge of the condition other than its popular hype and Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry and certainly feel that a lot of my preconceptions have been vanquished – I certainly shall never use the phrase ‘I just have OCD’ as a joke again. Neill successfully portrays the anxiety disorder’s ability to take over not only Daisy’s life, but also Max’s and Rosie’s, in a really powerful way. As someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, it was eye opening to witness it in its severity, and I give Neill a huge thumbs up for portraying it so honestly.

I’m surprised there was nothing from Lisa’s point of view, as her act of suicide at the conclusion of the novel really came from nowhere, although with retrospect it was hinted at. I dislike that Max witnessed it and made a conscious choice not to intervene, choosing his sister’s health over another human’s life, and I felt that Lisa was very unrepresented in a book that was really about her. In the ‘book club’ questions at the back of the novel (which seriously bug me, unless you’ve been dead 50 years, stop assuming that people are going to read your work and want to discuss it, but that’s an issue for another day) Neill puts forward the questions ‘why do you think none of the story was told from her point of view’. Metaphorically speaking, it’s because she was already dead. Her husband was seeking comfort elsewhere, her children hated her for leaving their father, her step children wanted nothing to do with her, her best friend hadn’t spoken to her for eight years and the cancer was rigorous in its attack on her body… Throughout the story, Lisa is simply a ghost that frightens and torments others, but she is not really portrayed as a real person, and any discussion of her is idealistic, from Nick’s point of view, or hateful, from everyone else’s. It’s unfortunate, as there was rich story to tell there, but Neill decided to leave it out.

Overall, whilst the book was generally disappointing and I won’t be looking out for Neill again, I did enjoy reading it and whilst the secrets and revelations were laboured and predictable, it did keep me turning the pages quickly until the very end.

Chasing the Stars, Malorie Blackman

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It’s a week before I commence my teacher’s training, and my brain is taking a break from the intensity of the books I have been reading, and so when I stopped off at the library to kill time before getting my hair cut and saw this sitting on the top of a bookcase, I just had to take a look.

It’s been years since I read Malorie Blackman. To my mind she was a one-trick-pony – I read Noughts and Crosses, thought it was alright and have somehow never seen anything else written by her since. Turns out, according to the mini biography at the back of this novel, that she’s written over 60 books, this one in 2016. So there’s a world of Blackman out there that I haven’t explored, but this was a good place to start.

The Premise

Vee and Aiden are only eighteen, but for the past three years they have been travelling through space on their own, after the death of the crew of their spaceship from a deadly virus.

Nathan has been abandoned on a small planet which has been attacked by their enemies, the Mazon, and only 22 of the hundreds of other settlers survive when Vee and Aiden rescue them.

Vee’s solitude is broken by the arrival of the settlers, and she falls head over heels in love with Nathan, agreeing to ‘join’ with him (equivalent of marriage) after only a few days. But there is a murderer loose on the ship, and both Nathan and Vee have secrets that they would rather leave hidden. Can their relationship survive the tumultuous months it will take to get everyone to safety?

The Verdict

It’s a guilty pleasure of mine that I do really enjoy reading books written for teens. Everything is so simple – they meet, they fall in love, they marry… their considerations are so much smaller than they should be. Vee is the captain of a ship but she basically loses interest because she meets a boy. Nathan is a ‘drone’ – an outcast from society – with more to think about that this relationship but, again, it doesn’t matter. They don’t even take into consideration the fact that they are heading for different places. There is something eternally reassuring about this optimism and spontaneity that makes a book enjoyable on a simplistic level that I really relate to.

Blackman does a good job of making the book about more than the romance. She follows the couple down a difficult path of distrust, dishonesty and disillusionment. Their spontaneous relationship undergoes more trials, and their reactions are more human and realistic than often found in teenage novels.

The supporting cast, however, suffers. The first person narrative really narrows the focus to the two narrators, leaving everyone else out in the cold. I suspected there was something wrong with Aiden right from the beginning, as I think Blackman expected, but a lot of what I considered clues may just have been sloppy writing, because everyone took such a side seat. Characters weren’t well thought through and multi dimensional, but rather had their one ‘thing’ – the ex, the gardener, the protector, the commander – and stuck to it. Whilst Vee and Nathan do grow, the rest of the cast do not, which I think is a real shame.

The imagery throughout is stunning though. The descriptions of solar systems, ion clouds and other space based phenomenons were effective and well drawn. Blackman clearly does her research.

The Verdict

Overall this was a fun, light read that I read over the course of a day. It develops its protagonists well, follows the standard structure of teen romance stories but ends in a much more realistic and gritty way. Whilst flawed for an adult, I can see how this novel would attract teens as interested readers.

The Stranger in my Home, Adele Parks

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In all honesty, I’m really disappointed by this novel and wish I had picked up something better. It was just so… average. I thought it would be a lot more practical. It didn’t need the dark turn of an insane father; just exploring the journey that had led us to the shocking revelation that two children were swapped at birth, and the impact of this discovery, would have been enough.

I get that Parks wanted to keep her ‘twist’ secret for as long as possible, and there were some really subtle hints, but they were almost too subtle for too long. I was incredibly bored just under a quarter of the way through the novel and skipped to the end to see what was going to happen. Soon after, I started noticing the hints a little more, but without knowing what was coming, it’s doubtful that I would have picked up on them. It’s almost like Parks has tried to write a book that you need to read twice, but the book itself is so boring that I wouldn’t put myself through that just to see where things started to go wrong.

The premise sounded fascinating – what do you do when you discover your teenage daughter was swapped as a baby and you’ve been raising someone else’s child? The tagline of the novel, however,: ‘I thought she was my daughter. I was wrong’ is incredibly misleading. It sounds more like something from a horror film than the introduction to an average family, an average novel with average characters which basically achieve nothing and make no personal gains throughout the period the novel covers.

Parks tries to create an interesting history for Alison, but half way through, it’s like she’s forgotten that she intended to do that. We lose the chapters in italics and gather together information so piecemeal that none of it seems relevant. I didn’t care that Alison didn’t pass her GCSEs or O Levels, because it was just so boring to read about and at no point was relevant to the more important story that we were following.

The first person narration was incredibly dull, and whilst I believe Parks must think that she’s written a believable, realistic character, she just hasn’t. I understand the love of a mother for her child is indescribable and that a mother would do anything for her child. But Alison was just so boring. She had no appeal other than through Katherine, and having her narrate the book undermined that love, because it was confused and obsessive. I’m actually more concerned about Alison’s mental health than I ever was about Tom’s.

The book addresses issues such as adoption, cancer and parenthood in far too callous a manner. Tom uses cancer and the death of his wife for sympathy WHEN ANNABEL DIDN’T EVEN DIE. This is brushed over in a horrific manner, and Jeff and Alison are far too accepting of it all.

Whilst Parks attempts to create sympathy for Alison through the tale of her teenage self giving birth and putting up for adoption a son, the journey that she has doesn’t have ANY RELEVANCE TO THE DAMN STORY!! It just doesn’t matter. It was so frustrating because none of it mattered. There was no coherent plot structure, linking threads or purposeful narration.

Books like this are why I spent a long time avoiding popular literature because they just make me so mad. The writing was average, the book was about 400 pages longer than it needed to be, the characters were unbelievable, undynamic (is that a word?) and annoying, and mostly the content was padding rather than necessity. Perhaps Parks should just stick to writing short stories, that grip and let go, without worrying about making it a novel. I shall not be reading anything by this author any time soon, because I really have better things to be reading.

When I was Invisible, Dorothy Koomson

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It’s rare that my mum introduces me to authors that I fall in love with, because we have such different taste and opinions. My popular culture loves come much more from my dad – Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, Crime, Mystery… mum is much more into non fiction and heavy theology! So it always amuses me that she accidentally introduced me to one of my favourite authors by recording a TV programme. The 2013 ITV1 adaptation of Ice Cream Girls was the first introduction to Dorothy Koomson I had. I remember watching it, enthralled and disgusted, going on an emotional journey with these poor girls and their horrific past. And when the series was finished, I had to read it. And then read some more. I’ve read The Rose Petal BeachThe Woman he loved before, Goodnight Beautiful, My Best Friend’s Girl and, of course The Ice Cream Girls, to name just a few. But I hadn’t really realised that Koomson was still writing, so imagine my excitement when I walked into the airport WH Smith to get a drink and discovered this brand new novel facing me, in the ‘newly released’ section and part of the ‘buy one get one half price’ sale. Well, it would have been rude not to.

The Plot

I’m never quite sure what I’m getting myself into with Dorothy Koomson. Whilst abuse and suffering are key themes of her novels, so too are the restoration of old relationships, the emotional turmoil of separation and the damage of lack of parental affection. So I never research too far into the novel because I want to experience it rather than simply read it. So, if you do plan to read this I would suggest that you go ahead and do so before reading a sentence further into this review, because to truly know its power, you have to go in ‘blind’, as it were.

Roni and Nika share a name and a love for ballet. They are supposed to be best friends forever, their lives interwoven through twists of fate. But  Roni lets Nika down and the act of betrayal is unforgivable.

Roni becomes a nun, putting her suffering behind her in the search for the Great Silence.

Nika becomes involved in an abusive relationship before spending ten years living in the street, finding the Great Silence in the music that she is always listening to.

On the surface, this is a story of abuse. Of how it can happen in the family and outside it. Of how those who suffer continually punish themselves, and how, having had their childhood ripped away from them, they can’t ever escape what it has made them. It is the story of an abuser winning for 20 years.

But it is so much more than that.

Truth

The truth is a key theme throughout the novel. Nika is a steady truth teller. She stands up to their ballet teacher, Mr Deaneaux, by telling her parents, and the police about the abuse she has suffered. As a result, even though she is not believed (which I will come onto) she is able to live a life secure in her sense of self. Yes, she ends up in an abusive relationship, but she escapes. Yes, she is homeless, but she finds her place there and doesn’t lose that kindness and compassion that define her. Ultimately, she is the one who can bring reconciliation because she has shared the truth from the start.

Of course, you can’t have a novel with a key theme of truth without having someone holding it back. Roni fulfills that purpose. It isn’t until the final chapters that her truth comes to the surface. What for Nika began at 11 when they started ballet, for Roni had been a constant since she was 8 years old. The uncle that she both adored and despised had abused her, and if she told the truth about Mr Deaneaux she would have to tell the truth about her uncle. Lies hide lies which protect everyone from the truth. Koomson captures the atmosphere in which horror like this grows with skill and delicacy. From the different perspectives of the story telling, you can see what the facade has done to the two women, and how the trauma of sexual, emotional and physical abuse can transform the way your brain works, and the way you face life.

Parental Responsibility

Or the lack thereof.

Nika’s parents don’t believe her and force her to go back time and again to the ballet teacher. Their lack of belief, their disinterest in their child’s abuse, is indicative of a society which doesn’t know how to deal with the taboo.

2012 was a huge year for survivors of sexual abuse. With the death of Jimmy Savile and the accusations, arrests and prosecutions that followed, a silent law of secrecy was lifted. Sexual abuse became something we could talk about, should talk about, and something that we should act upon. Women who had hidden their shame for years stepped forwards as survivors. This is even more true as Donald Trump becomes president, and survivors of such abuse are marching together, refusing to be cowed by a man who views women as objects free to touch.

But Nika’s parents came from a time long before that. The original abuse during the ballet takes place in the 90s. It was ‘better’ to deny it had even happened than to acknowledge and act on the crime. As a child, you weren’t a survivor, you were a victim and of course, you must have misunderstood, led them on or brought it on yourself. There was no space in society for sympathy or understanding, even from the police. Koomson captures that dark time, where lying seemed the only way forwards, with skill and precision, and the products of that attitude are seen in Nika’s parents and Roni’s mother.

But Koomson doesn’t just portray a dark and justice-less time. In 2016, when both girls speak out, there are reactions around them which redeem them.

Roni’s mother knew about the abuse and allowed it continue. Her failure as a protector of her child is what led to Roni not being able to speak out when Nika did, because her own mother had allowed this to happen. When Roni’s father finds out, he has no doubts about Roni telling the truth. He is not able to take away the years of abuse and pain, but he is able to reach his arms out and apologise. Roni’s mother remains in denial, but her father seems the harm those years have done and does all he can to make it right.

But Roni had never been disbelieved because she had never spoken up. The most heart-wrenching moment for me was when Nika returned to warn her parents what was going to be happening in the news, while her sister was there. Sasha was so glad to see Nika, glad her sister had returned. Nika’s line – ‘Sasha believes me. Roni believes me. Two people I know believe me the first time they hear what I have to say.’ (p. 425). Yet Nika’s thought, when her sister has bundled her up and protected her, is this. ‘Mummy didn’t speak once’. (p. 425). Koomson paints a cry to all the mothers out there. Believe your children. Trust them and believe them. Because it is you that they will turn to for belief, and one indication of disbelief and they will blame themselves and allow the pain to continue. No mother has the right to hurt their daughter in the way that Nika’s mother did.

Homelessness

I recently watched A Streetcat called Bob. I read it a few years ago, and was moved once again by the powerful portrayal of life on the streets. I was not expecting that to be echoed so closely by Koomson. Nika’s ten years living on and off the street, the power plays and rape attempts and friendship and drug addiction… it was so difficult to read and impossible to comprehend. The idea that these people are ‘invisible’ to us, that we choose not to see them every day was a really powerful statement, because of its truth. We don’t always see what is around us. We don’t acknowledge the suffering of others, and we can’t always help. Nika does something unusual by helping a young 14 year old girl to pay off her debt. But despite the loyal friendships that are developed, there is no trust. I can’t imagine living like that, and Koomson paints a very bleak picture of that life.

While Nika is there she calls herself Grace Carter. It was a powerful moment when, in the open wound of truth and hurt, she wished that she could be back to being Grace, rather than facing up to the damage of her past. This is what is so horrific – it was better to have nothing, mean nothing and potentially die, than to revisit her childhood abuse and abuser.

Conclusion

There is so much more to say about this novel, so many more layers to unwrap. Koomson takes a brave stand on a controversial issue, giving it a human face and name.

The Savile scandal has led to the arrests of many other celebrities, and encouraged many more women to step forwards with their tales. I believe that When I was Invisible has the power to do this for those who weren’t hurt by celebrities, but by their normal, every day role models, and their family members. It doesn’t have to have been a famous person for it to matter.

I look forwards to reading more Koomson in the future, and hope that this novel finds the readership that needs it the most.