Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Bridesmaid’s Daughter by Nyna Giles (2018)



I discovered this book through the wonder that is GoodReads recommendations, which are surprisingly good at times. I have found a number of unknown-to-me books this way that I ended up loving. I’ve been on a non-fiction kick recently, and have always loved reading unusual or off-beat memoirs, especially by women. The Bridesmaid’s Daughter has the perfect combination of mother/daughter relationships, New York in the 1940s and 50s, Grace Kelly, and what promised to be a fascinating life story. I couldn’t resist.

The outline is that Nyna Giles’ mother, Carolyn, came to New York in the late 1940s to become a model, and she was neighbours with Grace Kelly in the Barbizon Hotel, which was a hotel specifically for young women who lived alone in New York. It was run almost like a big university dormitory or boarding school, with a curfew, no men allowed, single rooms, and shared communal spaces. Carolyn was a model, Grace was an actress, and they became fast friends; as the title states, Carolyn was a bridesmaid at Grace’s wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. The book effortlessly blends the story of Carolyn in New York with episodes from Nyna’s childhood, allowing the reader to get a sense of Carolyn’s life from different angles at the same time. As we see her rising to fame to New York with her modelling, we also see her later in life, married and living on Long Island, struggling with motherhood.

We learn from the blurb, and quite early in the book, that when Nyna was a child her mother often kept her home from school, saying she was too ill. There were various doctors over the years who either agreed or disagreed, and in her research Nyna found many letters and reports from the school despairing at her absence and begging her mother to meet with them. As the book goes on and Nyna gets older, she realises that sometimes she is not ill, or she only has a minor medical issue, like a cold, but her mother insists she is too ill and weak to go to school, or to have home tutoring. We also hear about Nyna’s two older sisters, and her father, and her parents’ troubled marriage. This story grows alongside that of the young Carolyn finding success, meeting her husband, travelling to Monaco for Grace’s wedding, and getting married herself. Eventually the two stories meet somewhere in the middle and we get the full picture of Carolyn’s life.


Carolyn with her three daughters; Nyna is the baby. (image:

Reading about Nyna’s side of things, you realise that something was not quite right with Carolyn once she was older and had children. She is clearly neurotic about Nyna’s health, and is unhappy is her marriage, but still she seems off balance. At one point Nyna recalls her mother tearing down her beloved posters because she thought she could hears noises in the walls. The subtitle gives away the fact that by the time Nyna was an adult, with her own children, Carolyn was sleeping in a homeless shelter in New York; this book attempts to explain how she went from the glamour and success of her young life, to the shelter. As the two timelines of her lift come together, we begin to see how fragile Carolyn’s mental health was, and how this affected not only her but her children as well, and how things worsened over time. The sudden deaths of Nyna’s older sister Robin, and of Grace Kelly, obviously had a devastating effect on Carolyn as well.

Looking back, Nyna explores how difficult it was to get any help or treatment for mental health issues in the 1960s and the decades afterwards. At one point Carolyn starts to see a psychiatrist, but Nyna’s father disapproves and makes her stop when she won’t go to a doctor he has chosen; Nyna reflects on several instances like this when help was possible, but Carolyn was either thwarted or did not pursue it. Once you get about two thirds of the way through the book, you realise that Carolyn’s mental health was the point of the story all along, and why Nyna chose certain episodes about which to write. Grace Kelly is at first a fun addition to Carolyn’s story, adding glamour and a connection to the wider world that Carolyn experiences; she also introduces Carolyn to her husband Malcolm, Nyna’s father. As the timeline progresses, especially after Grace gets married and moves to Monaco, she is not quite so present, but serves as a rough parallel to Carolyn’s life, and how different their lives ended up being – although Nyna does see a similarity in that both of them essentially gave up their careers for marriage and children, for better or worse.


Grace Kelly’s wedding; Carolyn is on the far left. (image:

Before I started The Bridesmaid’s Daughter I worried that there might be too much of a focus of Grace Kelly, or that it would be clunky, but it was actually executed very well. She exists as a symbol of Carolyn’s past, and something to aspire to. Nyna Giles is writing about her own mother, and so she is the focus, and the whole story is handled very sensitively and empathetically. Perhaps because I’m a woman, I find mother/daughter relationships fascinating, and the ones in this book were no exception (we also hear a bit about Grace and Carolyn’s parents, as well as Nyna’s two sisters). Personally I really enjoyed this book – I read it in only two days – and would recommend it to anyone interested in these kind of memoirs, as well as the 20th century history. It is elegantly written by Giles, with the help of co-writer Eve Claxton, and is honestly just a really fascinating story. Another win for GoodReads recommendations!


Published in 2018 by September Publishing in the UK, and St Martin’s Press in the US. I read the September paperback, pictured above.

There is a lovely website about the book here, including galleries of Carolyn’s modelling days. Nyna Giles has also shared a lot of great images on her Instagram here.

Articles, Fiction, Non-Fiction

Most Anticipated Upcoming Books

I try to read a mixture of old and new books, and often find myself reading ‘new’ books some time after they come out, purely because I always have so many books I want to read that I rarely get to read things when they are really new. Often I just get to look at other reviews and wish I didn’t have so many books to read! There are several books that I am really excited about reading in the next few months – some new and some not-so-new. Here are the ones I’m most looking forward to…

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Sept 2016 Picador edition (image:

I loved Room but somehow didn’t feel the need to pick up Frog Music; but now Emma Donoghue’s new novel The Wonder really appeals to me. I know from reading Room that she is a wonderful  writer, and this story is not like anything I have read before. Kim Forrester wrote a brilliant review of it here. Fingers crossed I’ll get to read it before Christmas!

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

May 2017 Tinder Press edition (image:

This is coming out in May 2017 from Tinder Press, and I am really looking forward to it. It is a fictional take on the story of Lizzie Borden and the murder of her father and stepmother. She was acquitted of their murder but of course suspicion remains, and the story is fascinating. This looks like a really interesting and modern interpretation of the story, and I cannot wait to read it.

Labyrinths: Emma Jung, Her Marriage to Carl, and the Early Years of Psychoanalysis by Catrine Clay

Nov 2016 Harper edition (image:

I’ve always had a vague interest in psychology and psychoanalysis and the fact that this book focuses on Emma rather than Carl Jung really appeals to me. It just seems like another way of looking at a familiar story, and I hope it’ll be as interesting as it looks! It’s always a pleasure to read about wonderful women from history.

The Good People by Hannah Kent

Feb 2017 Pan Macmillan edition (image:

Like many other readers, I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites. It really stuck with me and as soon as I heard she had written a second novel I knew I had to read it. The premise really interests me and I think it will be a great multi-layered book.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

Sept 2016 Liveright/Norton edition (image:

I have read three of Jackson’s novels and have The Lottery and Other Stories on my shelf waiting to be read, so I just have to read this new biography of her. New PMC editions mean that Shirley Jackson is again popular, and I am so glad she is – her writing is some of the most beautiful and beguiling I have read in years. Luckily she also seems to have been a brilliant and intriguing person, so I’m really looking forward to this one.

I’d love to hear about books that you are looking forward to – there are always too many to read!
Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

The best books of 2015

My apologies for the mixture of photos in this post – I have lent out some of the books featured so wasn’t able to take a nice photo of them and had to find images of the covers online. Not ideal, but there you go…


Somehow 2015 is over, and I have naturally been thinking about all the books I’ve read this year, and which was the best, and the worst, and which ones were in between. According to GoodReads I red 34 books in 2015 (one off my target of 35!), which is less than I usually read – I blame the new, busier job I started half way through the year!

I read a couple of super dupers early in the year, namely Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, and Tracks by Robyn Davidson. Two very different books, but I loved them both. Bonjour Tristesse is sort of a coming-of-age tale, but it’s also about love and relationships and jealousy, and it is beautifully crafted. Tracks could also be seen as a coming-of-age tale, though it is about the author finding herself in the desert, which is a bit different to a posh holiday by the sea. It is fascinating, engaging, emotional, and just brilliant. It also proves why dogs are better than people.


Version 2

One of my very favourite books this year was The Blue Tattoo by Margot Mifflin. It was a random book I heard about on Twitter, but it was just wonderful to read. It is the story of the life of Olive Oatman, who was captured by Native Americans in the 1800s and lived with them for a few years before being ‘returned’ to ‘her people’. There are many other stories like Olive’s but this is a good place to start with this genre.

Version 2

The next amazing book I read was The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson. I was umming and ahhing about this one, but then Carolyn’s amazing post convinced me I must read it. And it was wonderful! Even thinking about it now fills me with hope and wonder. It celebrates everything about Homer and demonstrates why The Odyssey and The Iliad are so integral to the development of Western literature, and why we should all appreciate them more.



Since then I’ve mostly liked the books I’ve read (with one notable exception), so I’m just going to pick out a few…

I adored Forgotten Fatherland by Ben McIntyre. It popped up in my GoodReads recommendations, and it is one of the weirdest and most brilliant books I have ever read. It tells the story of Elisabeth Nietszche (sister of the philosopher) and the Aryan colony she set up in Paraguay with her husband. They were essentially early versions of Nazis, and in later life, when she returned to Germany, Elisabeth was a friend of Hitler and his party. He even came to her funeral. It has to be read to be believed.



I also very much enjoyed the three Shirley Jackson books I have read this year: Hangsaman, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. They are all weird and strange and brilliant, and I loved all of them a lot. I am now on a mission to read everything Shirley Jackson ever wrote, and she has set a lot of wheels in motion in my head with my own writing. If I could be a modern-day version of her as a writer, I’d be happy. More Shirley in 2016!

Version 2

I must recommend the two books about mental health that I read this year: The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor and Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. The former is quite dark and a bit bleak, though with a hopeful ending, and was really fascinating. I preferred reading Girl, Interrupted as it was less matter-of-fact and more about a very personal experience. These two books work in different ways, but both are illuminating, moving, and very well-written.

Version 2


And lastly I want to mention the book I recently posted about, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. It is the first book of Atwood’s I have read, and I think it was a good place for me to start. This is more my kind of thing than her science fiction/fantasy novels, and I will definitely read more of her work – just not all of it. I loved Alias Grace for a lot of reasons – I loved the setting and the atmosphere, the descriptions of daily life in Victorian Canada (and learning about that country’s history), and I loved the ambiguity and nuance of Grace and her story. Read more in my recent post here.


So there you have it! The best books I have read this year. I am looking forward to many more fantastic reads in 2016.

What have been your best books of 2015?



Articles, Fiction

Ice, Fire, and Indecision

Let’s do a quick bit of remembering here… the TV series ‘Game of Thrones’ first aired in 2011; in the same year my boyfriend read the entire series of books it is based on, A Song of Ice and Fire; in 2012 I read the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones; later that year we both started watching the TV series. And when did I read the second book, A Clash of Kings? Well. It’s February 2015 and I’m about a hundred pages in. Talk about follow-through. Luckily it’s brilliant, so I’m glad I finally picked it up.



Reading A Clash of Kings has been good for another reason – it appears to have broken my pattern of reading too slowly. The last few books I’ve read, from the end of 2014, have lasted a lot longer than they should have. This was down to a combination of things that I was aware of, including my feelings about those books and the circumstances in which I read them, but it was frustrating nonetheless. I usually read relatively fast, and have done since my degree required me to read at least three books and about a zillion poems a week. So when I read a book slowly, I notice. There is always a reason.

There is also always a reason why I put off reading a book. I have/had put off reading A Clash of Kings until now for many reasons: the conflict with the TV show and its timeline; the length of the book; fear of not enjoying it; and the commitment to the whole series of books (and the ones not yet published). So a lot to consider! As a blogger I also have a fair few books to read for review, and as a general book person I have an awful lot of unread books on my list/shelves/floor, so when I am choosing a book to read, it’s often a question of priorities. If a review book is publishing soon, ideally I want to read and review it before it comes out, and so those books often get pushed to the front of the queue when they are due out soon. There are also the books that I don’t have a deadline for, but that I’m just really keen to read – the ones that look out at you and urge you to open them. At the moment these books are The Blue Tattoo by Margot Mifflin; Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback; Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper; and Tracks by Robyn Davidson. And there are many, many more. But these are at the top of my list, the ones I can remember without looking at my To Read list on GoodReads (currently 135 books long). Having a lot of books to read is really annoying and stressful sometimes, despite also being amazing and exciting. Choices, choices… but my point is that for a long time I was scared to make the choice to dive into A Clash of Kings, to make the leap and just go for it. Silly, isn’t it? So I am very glad that I’ve dived into A Clash of Kings, and luckily I’m really enjoying it. For a 900-odd page book I’m making decent progress too, which is satisfying. The lesson here: stop worrying and just go for it!


Fiction, Reviews

Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

2013 Tinder Press edition (image:

2013 Tinder Press edition (image:

Instructions For A Heatwave is the sixth novel from the extremely popular Maggie O’Farrell, one of the titles from new imprint Tinder Press, and the first of her books I have read. O’Farrell was yet another one of those authors I had always heard good things about but for some reason had never actually read. To be honest I think part of the reason for that was because all the covers of her previous novels were a bit girly and swirly and pink, and that put me off a bit. They were clearly romantic and emotional and while that isn’t bad, they just seemed a bit fluffy. Think of that what you will.

Tinder Press is a new imprint from Headline, with all of its little collection of new titles coming out in 2013. The catalogue is beautiful, consisting of a set of postcards with the details of each book on them. Firstly the cover of Instructions For A Heatwave got my attention – it is generally rather pleasing, but also, crucially, looked modern and intelligent, probably because it doesn’t look like a cover I’ve seen before. The plot description was simple but also very appealing – a husband and father walks out on his family for no apparent reason; the estranged children come back to their mother, and secrets and drama unfold. Knowing O’Farrell’s reputation but never having taken the plunge with her, I was intrigued, and requested a copy.

I’m not going to say too much about this novel. From the start I loved O’Farrell’s writing; simple and honest, but beautiful too. I particularly liked the way she shifted perspective from one character to another within one scene, so elegant and smooth, so easy and graceful that you barely notice and when you do you are impressed and pleased. Her descriptions – of people, moods, emotions, thoughts and particularly places – are exceptionally beautiful and well thought out. Nothing here is generic or cliched.

Aoife flips a page over, realises that she hates this photographer’s work, that she met the man once and he was an arrogant pig. She eyes the long form of her brother [lying on the floor].

‘You OK?’ she says.

‘Mmmnnng,’ Michael Francis says, or thereabouts.

His face is pressed to the rag rug in what was once his sisters’ bedroom. It is, he suddenly sees, the best place in the world to be.

Those of you who have read her previous work probably know this, but O’Farrell really does understand all the complexities held within families. We feel a vast sum of emotions towards each family member and our history is always, always present, no matter how deep down or far back. O’Farrell lays everything bare; she is unafraid of the truths of family relationships, no matter how difficult. The relationships between siblings I found particularly moving and expertly crafted. Youngest (and most ‘difficult’) sibling Aoife, I fell in love with.

I did not want to reach the end of this book. It is one of the few I have awarded five stars on GoodReads, and I am certainly going to read more of O’Farrell’s work. I am so, so happy I chose this book – shows just how important covers are! Seen opaquely, the end could be thought of as a little too neat; but really there are a lot of questions still unanswered. You are left pondering it all for a long time after the book is closed.


Published in hardback in February 2013 by Tinder Press. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Events, Reviews

Delicacy by David Foenkinos – The Real Readers Experience!

Real Readers is a scheme set up by AMS Digital Publishing, who also run the popular review sites Book Dagger, Book Geeks, Book Hugger and the newsletter Book Breeze. Real Readers was set up in order to allow bloggers and people who just really like reading to review books before their release and review them across the web, on Amazon, GoodReads, Shelfari and their own blogs. Well-written and prompt reviews get ‘Karma’ points, and the reviewer gets more books sent to them. Win-win! In the case of French novel Delicacy by David Foenkinos, this also meant reviewing the new film adaptation of the book, as well as the book itself.

So, I received a very pretty copy of Delicacy in the post last week, and on Friday 10th attended a private screening of the film at the Soho Screening Rooms. Having spent four hours lounging about in the 5th floor cafe of Waterstones Piccadilly (highly recommended), drinking hot chocolate and finishing reading Delicacy, I was eager to see how it had been adapted to film. One of Real Readers’ organisers, Simon Appleby, was there to greet us, and once everyone had arrived we filed in to the teeny screening room. Having finished the book an hour or two before, I was immersed in Foenkinos’ imaginary Paris, and had much of the book fresh in my mind as I watched the film.

2011 English language paperback edition

The premise of Delicacy is deceptively simple. Natalie is having coffee one day when a handsome young man comes up to talk to her. This is Francois. One thing leads to another, and, soon, they are married. One Sunday, Natalie is reading and on the sofa and Francois goes out for a run and gets hit by a car. He dies. For three years Natalie throws herself into work, fending off her boss’ flirtations and waiting to become an old maid. Then, on a particularly daydream-y afternoon, she impulsively kisses her average-looking colleague Markus. He is head-over-heels; she forgets it even happened. The rest of the book is the story of what happened next – the story of Natalie and Markus. Not always easy or fun, but always unexpected.

At only 250 pages this is a short and sweet book. There are 115 chapters, all of which are pleasingly short and sweet too. Every now and then an entire chapter is taken up with lists and facts, which serve as a charming diversion from the main story that suggest the wealth of life behind the fraction of it we are seeing in these pages.

The underlying sadness of the story adds a depth not usually present in novels with such pretty covers – a depth that Foenkinos demonstrates through deliberate prose and the short chapters that often end on a poignant or thought-provoking moment.

At times the story lapses into ‘standard’ relationship drama, but Foenkinos always brings us back with moments of literary excellence: ‘Every day near her had been the huge but surreptitious conquest of a veritable empire of the heart.’ No words are wasted in this novel and there are several small and beautiful moments that really make you stop, put down the book for a moment, and think about what you have just read.

2011 English language film poster

The film is beautiful too. I was eager to see what changes had been made to the original story and how these would affect the overall work. Happily the changes made did not ruin the tone of the story nor the personalities or relationships of the characters. My only complaint about the changes was that they did not include Markus’ fantastic line from page 95: ‘But that moment was the realest of my life.’ After reading it, I stopped and had a ‘moment’. It was wonderful.

The use of music is subtle and effective, really evoking an atmosphere and helping to create mood. Along with the music, the gentle humour (often visual) worked very well with the sadder elements of the story, as it does in the novel. Audrey Tautou was as charming and subtle in her performance as ever, and managed to have good chemistry with every other character. The addition of her best friend (not present in the novel) worked surprisingly well – it added another dimension to her character and allowed her to speak the feelings that Foenkinos only describes in the book.

Look out for office secretary Ingrid. She is not in the novel but here is an obvious visual reference to the character of Joan Holloway from ‘Mad Men’ – red hair, large bust, gold pen on a gold chain around her neck, a red v-neck sweater paired with a purple pencil skirt. She is the French Joan!

Author David Foenkinos

Delicacy has won every literary award in France, apparently the first novel ever to do this, and the film adaptation has been highly successful too. Audrey Tautou is a major attraction for many cinema-goers, and she is brilliant, but there are many more reasons to see the film, and read the book too.


Delicacy was originally published as La Delicatesse in France in 2009 by Gallimard. It was published in the UK in English in 2011 by Bloomsbury. My copy was kindly provided by Real Readers and Bloomsbury for review.

‘La Delicatesse’ was released in France in 2011, and as ‘Delicacy’ in the UK, also in 2011.

Fiction, Reviews

Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann


2012 Picador cover - just gorgeous. Image:

2012 Picador cover – just gorgeous. Image:

Tigers in Red Weather has created and is still creating rather a lot of, dare I say it, ‘buzz’ and ‘hype’ on GoodReads and the book blogs, with lots of good reviews and 4 or 5 star ratings. It is the debut novel of former journalist Liza Klaussmann, which after having read it I still find amazing. It is that good. Unsurprising that it sold to Picador and Little, Brown for ‘major’ sums.

Helena and Nick are cousins; as the book opens they are living alone together during the Second World War. Helena is about to leave for Hollywood to marry Avery Lewis, and Nick’s husband Hughes is about to return from service in London. Let’s just say neither marriage is ‘perfect’ and as time passes (the novel spans 1944 – 1969) relationships change and personalities… shift. The novel is told from five perspectives – Nick, her daughter Daisy, Helena, Hughes, and Helena’s son Ed. It jumps back and forth through time, revisiting the summer of 1959 in particular. The summer that Daisy and Ed found a dead body behind the tennis courts.

As Nick says near the end of the book, in a family there is no one universal truth. Individual perspective can entirely change how the ‘truth’ of a situation can look. The book begins with Nick’s narrative, and though she is not the central character (there isn’t one) her story is a brilliant example of how a person can change within themselves as their role in life changes over the years. From a young wife to a middle-aged mother, she remains ‘herself’ but as her role changes she acts differently; she must adapt to the expectations of those around her.

In the small holiday community of the island of Martha’s Vineyard (a place well known by author Klaussmann), everyone knows everyone else’s business and gossip is rife. The entire family are forced to adhere to social expectations and how they ‘should’ be; this adds up to a lot of repressed feelings and no one being totally honest with each other. With everyone having their own opinions but not really communicating with each other, none of the family really seem to know each other very well. After Daisy and Ed find the body of a young woman who turns out to be the maid of a local couple, no one quite knows how to deal with the situation or comfort them, and the obvious murder becomes yet another piece of gossip. Nick, Hughes and Helena worry about the children’s reactions to the body, but none of them ask how they feel or try to explain why she might have been there, dead and abandoned. Everything gets swept under the rug.

There are great moments of stillness and subtlety in Tigers in Red Weather. A look, a movement, a word or two, can give away more than intended, or simply hint at some inner turmoil unknown to the outside world. Naivety and the ‘wisdom’ of age are examined as both the parents and children age, and the calm, slow tone threaded through with flashes of emotion and urgency reminded me of Truman Capote or Donna Tartt writing about the Deep South. Klaussmann employs deceptively simple phrases to communicate depths of emotion and family history, much like Tartt and indeed Jane Austen with her literary icebergs.

I highly recommend this book. It is beautifully written, with moments of intense description and poignant characterisation. Klaussmann’s ability to move between characters and decades is truly brilliant. A simply fantastic and extremely admirable debut novel. I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.


Published in paperback on 2nd August 2012 by Picador in the UK and Little, Brown in the US. My copy was kindly provided by Picador for review.

Fiction, Reviews

You Came Back by Christopher Coake

The premise of You Came Back instantly appealed to me: Mark and Chloe lost their young son Brendan in an accident in their home. Grief-stricken, they moved out and later divorced. Now, Mark is engaged to Allison and thinks he’s moved on, until he is contacted by a woman living in his old house who claims it is haunted by Brendan’s ghost. I like an element of mystery and intrigue in the books I read, and so when I was offered an ARC of this book from Penguin I gladly accepted it. My copy is covered in positive reviews from respectable sources and I have read mostly good reviews of the novel on GoodReads (most give it five stars), and for the most part it is enjoyable.

2012 Viking edition (image:

2012 Viking edition (image:

The most notable thing is the deep sense of emotion that runs through it. Mark is our main character, and Coake does a wonderful job of really getting inside his head and exposing his mind to the reader. The depiction of Mark is so vivid it could almost be 1st person narrative. In a way, though, I’m glad it isn’t. This is a very emotional and intense book, and if it were narrated by Mark I feel it would get lost in his own thoughts and the reader would have to wade through the mire of unhappiness and confusion, and would probably, frankly, give up and read something else. Coake keeps us just outside Mark’s state of mind so that while we are aware of his thoughts and feelings we are not entirely wrapped up in them. This means that we are still able to see things as objectively as possible – though at points one does get roped in to Mark’s way of thinking, whether one agrees with it or not.

It’s been seven years since Brendan died and his relationship with Chloe fell apart, and Mark is happy with Allison. ‘Happy’. Happiness is examined here in great depth. So is desire, and being true to yourself about what you really want. Until it happens to you none of us can know what it feels like to lose a child, and Mark still wonders what life would have been like if Brendan had lived, or if he could have done anything to change what happened. Chloe was out, Brendan had a tantrum and Mark told him to tidy his room, before sitting on the sofa to drink whiskey and watch basketball. Brendan, still grumpy, stomped up the stairs and packed a bag, intending to run away. He fell down the stairs and died. Mark wonders if Brendan would have lived had he gone upstairs to talk to him rather than brooding over his drink in the living room; if he’d talked to Brendan rather than ordering him upstairs, and Brendan hadn’t wanted to run away at that moment.

Mark’s been thinking about this, intermittently, for seven years, and he still doesn’t have an answer. As with a lot of situations in life, wondering about different outcomes doesn’t help us gain closure; it only sends the memories around and around in our minds and gets us more and more upset about the way things happened. Mark is happy, but he is still tormented.

There is a lot in this book about being a family, and how that works. Mark and Chloe and Brendan were a family, and now Brendan is dead and Mark and Chloe are at best terse and cold with each other at their annual dinners on Brendan’s birthday. Mark wonders if they still would have broken up if Brendan hadn’t died. Again it is the wondering about what could have happened that makes the facts of things seem worse. Mark loves Allison, and their life together is good and happy, but he wonders all the time if he can be as happy with her as he was with Chloe, when things were good. He knows he loved Chloe in a different way. Their relationship goes back years, to college, and Mark’s dad Sam is still in touch with Chloe too. When you were once a family, it’s hard to forget it, even if there have been bad times since. Mark has moved on, but he hasn’t forgotten. The reader wonders if he only moved on because he had to, rather than because he really wanted to.

There is some really great writing in You Came Back, and more than enough scope of feeling and imagination to convince the reader that Christopher Coake really is a good writer; but there are also a lot of flaws. At times the acute emotions in the novel become overwhelming and the reader feels suffocated. We follow Mark through every action of every day and you begin to long for accurate summaries, a more impressionistic approach that does not require a log of his entire day. Which is sometimes what you get. It can get a little hard-going and sometimes you just need a break.

The issue of Brendan possibly being a ghost is a massive one. At first, the new inhabitant of the old house, Connie, appears as a madwoman that Mark is afraid of; and rightly so, as she stalks him and talks to him about very personal, painful things. He unsurprisingly tells her to back off and threatens to have her arrested if she doesn’t; but then Mark’s friend Lew reminds Mark of his own belief in ghosts, and when Connie contacts Chloe, she tells Mark she believes what Connie is saying might be true. Mark is then thrown into doubt – he wants to believe Chloe, but also thinks she might be using Brendan as a way to get between him and Allison. It all gets a bit dramatic, and Mark starts to go a little nuts. He doesn’t know what he believes.

Without giving anything away there has to come a point in the story when it must be determined whether or not Brendan really is a ghost living in the house where he died. Now, I love a good old fashioned ghost story, but those often involve an element of horror or fear in some way. This book does not. It is not a horror story, nor is it a ‘romp’ like The Little Stranger, which was dramatic, scary and fun at the same time. There is no fun in this book. No one is ever happy or having a good time, and there is no juicy drama in the ghost story. The whole thing is bleak and sad, and everyone is distant and lonely. To be honest, by the time I was halfway through, I was fed up of how depressing it was.

In the middle, after Chloe confesses she believes Connie, the story begins to drag and the conclusion seems rather far off. All sense of pace dissipates and the reader feels lost in a sea of emotions from Mark, Chloe and Allison. Mark and Allison’s relationship begins to suffer, and he spends an increasing amount of time wondering whether his son really is a ghost, and what that might mean. He is torn between the past and the present, with the future looming somewhere in the distance, and is trying to run away from all of it. Mark is desperate, and he sees no way out; the pressure starts to get to the reader, and you need to put the book down for a few moments.

Plausibility is a big issue in You Came Back. Mark wonders whether the ghost is real; whether Chloe really believes in it; whether Connie is crazy or what; there are a lot of questions he cannot answer. For the reader, the plausibility of the story is sometimes doubtful. If you don’t believe in ghosts, spirits and mediums (I personally don’t) then the characters who do believe can get a little trying. I wondered how I would respond if I was, say, Allison’s friend, and she was telling me about all this from an outside perspective. I would think it was ridiculous, but I would also feel very sorry for Chloe – a still-grieving mother desperate to hold onto her child. I expect I would find it hard to believe that Mark was getting caught up in the whole thing, unless he wanted to leave Allison for Chloe. The whole thing, at times, seems a little far fetched.

I know there are a lot of people out there who believe in ghosts and spirits, and the abilities of mediums. They are all over the television. Religion comes into the novel when a medium is hired who is a devout Christian, but it is not an overarching theme. This is more about grief, and love, and dealing with loss. A lot of mediums are accused of preying on the emotions of grieving people who are unable to let go of those that have died, and at times the reader suspects that Chloe’s belief in Brendan’s ghost is just wishful thinking; but would she want her child to be trapped in some sort of limbo? It’s a tricky subject, and Mark grapples with it throughout the book.

I expect that most people’s reaction to this book will be based on their feelings towards dealing with loss and grief, and their beliefs about ghosts and mediums. I’ve read a lot of reviews that praise the book for its depth of feeling in describing a mourning relative, and the effects of loss on a person’s state of mind. You Came Back deserves this praise; but, I felt, the book was sometimes too over-emotional and, like the mediums, was counting on the emotional reaction of the audience. Now, I am not unfeeling. There are books that have made me cry; but the overwrought, and frankly melodramatic emotions in this book activated my cynical side. It is simply too much.

I think that if the emotional drama was toned down a little, and the length shortened to a more concise volume, then You Came Back could be a really terrific novel. Its problem is that it rambles and wallows in its own emotion, drama and mystery. It, like its characters, just cannot let go.


Originally published in the US by Grand Central Publishing in June 2012, and was published in the UK in paperback by Viking, an imprint of Penguin, also in June 2012. My copy was kindly provided by Viking for review.