All That Was Lost by Alison May

All That Was Lost is a poignant story of love and loss set in two very different times; the present and in 1967/8. It tells the story of Patrice Leigh, a celebrated Medium who is starting to secretly lose her mind to dementia and starts to remember her past. She meets Leo, a journalist who is hired as her ghost-writer to write her biography. He is dealing with grief over his lost son Olly who was last seen in New Zealand just before a landslide hit. Leo also has other personal reasons for taking on this assignment though that are revealed later on. Louise is a young mother who lost her son Kyle to a stabbing and is having trouble dealing with her grief. She desperately wants to make contact with Kyle through Patrice.

This book is an interesting meditation on the layers of love and what it means to lose such love whether that is through a death, or through break-ups, separations etc. It is also a thoughtful look at a complicated long life and one that contrasts the more conservative morals of Britain in the 1960s to those of today. Some people think that the 1960s was all about free love and hippies etc but from talking to people that actually lived through the decade you realise that for most people it was still quite a conservative moral time and society judged harshly those who were different or who wanted to live in a way that would be accepted today but was frowned upon at the time. The contrast between the decades (especially if the family atmosphere was a religious one) is well portrayed here. The hypocrisy of such ideal standards is also highlighted in the form of Pat’s parents who both have secrets they keep from each other and the community.

The topic of dementia is also sensitively and realistically handled and one that resonated with me as I lost my Grandmother to it, late last year. As Patrice succumbs to dementia, she starts to vividly remember the past and the joy but also the pain that happened to her when she was a teenager. I think the last chapter in particular is key, as this marks the point where she stops living as Patience Bickersleigh and starts living as Patrice Leigh. This shows you just how many layers of pretence have built up and further complicates things for her as she starts to succumb to dementia. She too is grieving for the loss of her memory in a way.

In addition to the strong main character of Patrice, I also liked the secondary characters of Leo and Louise. They both felt a connection to each other through their shared grief and this was handled sensitively and the characterisation was very strong here too. In fact, May built very strong individual characters throughout and there was a sense of truth about how the complicated subject of ‘grief’ was handled. All of the main characters were dealing with grief in one way or another, hence the title of the book ‘All That Was Lost,’ was extremely apt.

Overall this was a good read which deals with sensitive issues and I would definitely recommend that you read it, as grief is a universal subject that affects everyone and is sensitively portrayed here.

A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes

A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes tells the story of Robyn, a young girl facing difficult circumstances in the scorching Summer of 1976.

The book is set in two times 1988 (the present) and flashes back to the pivotal Summer of 1976. Robyn is keen to discover the truth of the mystery that happened in 1976 but still affects her and her brother Kit to this day. She and Kit move back into their old family home and being back in their home town stirs up lots of memories.

Who is the mysterious figure of the man in the cowboy hat who turns up at the swimming pool? This mystery element is covered well and revealed in snapshots over time when the book flashes back to 1976.

What Holme’s does well is to capture Robyn’s voice as a child, particularly when she is witnessing situations between adults that she may not completely comprehend. This fragmented memory and confusion is described particularly well and extends the readers sympathy towards Robyn. Robyn’s conflicted feelings of going back to her home town after many years away, is especially well described and we see this in her interactions with the people from her past such as Neil and Carol.

The novel as a whole, covers serious issues such as domestic violence, bullying and complex family dynamics. The crux of the book is “We’re all about secrets in this family.” The damage that secrets and half-truths can do to a family is the important issue here. A Little Bird Told Me raises the issue about openness and transparency with all the family members even when dealing with difficult subjects such as bullying and domestic violence. The reason that these behaviours are allowed to flourish are due to the veil of secrecy around them. It is shocking to think that domestic violence was seen as a family matter and not a criminal concern historically. It is only fairly recently that this opinion has changed. This book, although fiction strongly highlights this important social issue in bringing awareness to the subject.

This is Holme’s debut novel and is bound not to be her last as she writes beautifully written prose and constructs very realistic characters. The book also contains a wonderful note from the Publishers at the beginning which states that Holmes submitted her book to them as a last try before she put the manuscript away again, but they were so glad that she didn’t. This is a great salve to writer’s like ourselves who can try to not give up hope. I personally found this very encouraging.

Overall, A Little Bird Told Me is an important book that I recommend that you read and I look forward to reading more of Marianne Holmes’ work in the future.

The Great Unexpected by Dan Mooney

The Great Unexpected was an unexpected delight! (See what I did there?!). I really enjoyed this unusual tale of two old gents in a residential home in Ireland. The story was both heartrending and tender but also very funny and upbeat.

The Great Unexpected centres around two main characters: Joel who is irascible, depressed and generally a downbeat pessimist and Frank who is charming, funny and uplifting but who is hiding behind a mask.

Joel has been at the residential home for a while after losing his wife whom he still misses every day. The routine of the home depresses him and after his roommate dies he becomes ever bleaker in his outlook and is determined to end his own life. Then Frank turns up. Frank was an actor and still is, in some respects. He is the complete opposite of Joel in that he is debonair and extremely amenable. Once Frank moves into Joel’s room they start to get up to all sorts of mischief; escaping the home, going into town, visiting pubs etc. Essentially, they both start living again and shed the monotony and childlike treatment that they experience at the home. Joel confides in Frank that he is determined to end his life and Frank listens to him and agrees to help him do this, though this is not a suicide help book by any means. Frank provides so many fun experiences for Joel that he starts to question his decision to kill himself and wonders if it was the right idea in the first place.

There are some laugh out loud moments which are usually the exchanges between Joel and Frank as they get up to mischief, especially when they subvert the carer’s stereotypical ideas. Joel plays up to ‘the grumpy old man’ stereotype and Frank plays up his debonair wit. These moments are very funny and bring the book alive with strong characterisation. I think the dialogue, in particular, is excellent in this story and very true to life. It would make a great TV show or film.

I don’t want to give away any more of the plot except to say that this is a delightful book with a serious message. It makes you question the treatment of the elderly and the importance of not infantilising them. They have all lived rich lives and deserve respect. Read ‘The Great Unexpected,’ and like me, you may be unexpectedly surprised with it!