Not one to sit on the fence, I will say from the outset that I adored this novel. I found it funny and heart-warming, and it made me feel nostalgic for a time when life felt more innocent, even if it wasn’t. I can quite see why the book was snapped up by Borough Press, and why the author had so many offers of agent representation. Sometimes I can’t see why one book is ‘hyped’ over another, but in this instance it’s obvious (and I don’t like the word, hyped). It’s an unusual book which has universal themes, and which speaks directly to the complexity and confusion of life.
I read the book partly via an ARC which someone kindly passed on to me (legitimately, thanks Deb), and partly on my kindle. I also then bought the audio book, as I wanted to listen to Paula Wilcox reading it. I decided that my favourite mode was listening to Paula read, while I followed the text on my tablet, as it enabled me to be ‘read a story’ while poring over the text at the same time. You see, the writing is unlike anything I’ve come across and is quite wonderful. Quirky, synaesthetic, and vivid, I found myself reading and re-reading so many sentences, it took me an age to get through the book! The language used in the Grace and Tilly parts brims with innocence and trust and simplicity, yet it is infused with a sense of knowing about many aspects of life, sometimes in a way which may be beyond their years, but also in that wise way that children have.
The book opens in the sweltering heatwave of 1976. Margaret Creasy, from number eight, has disappeared. As ten year olds, Grace and Tilly, make it their business to find out what has happened to her, they get sidetracked into other investigations. Grace attempts to make sense of what they find by filtering it through the teachings she hears in church. This is a wonderfully humorous device, but actually it’s also exactly what children do: filter what they see and hear through other things they’ve seen and heard, creating a sort of jigsaw of life.
What I loved about this novel is that the reader can relate to it on various levels. There’s the story, set mainly in 1976 with flashbacks to key events in 1967, and the mystery of what has happened to Mrs Creasy. Then there are all the other secrets which lurk behind the curtained windows of all the houses on the street. Furthermore, there’s the goats and sheep philosophy about types of people, which Grace gets from church, and there are reflections on themes such as prejudice, belonging and paedophilia.
The characters on The Avenue are ones we will all recognise. It always amuses me when people’s nicknames get passed on from one generation to another, until, via a form of social crypto-amnesia, everyone’s forgotten where the name originated. Prejudices and judgements abound. No-one is exempt, including the police. There’s Walter Bishop at number eleven, and new arrivals, the Kapoors. Grace is wonderful: complex and a bit prickly, her first person sections remind me of the boy at school who makes out he doesn’t like you, and plays hard to get to mask his insecurities and fear. Sometimes I wanted Tilly to tell Grace to get stuffed, but ultimately Tilly knew that Grace liked and needed her. The period details provide the book with an authentic retro feel, and I had to give in and re-sample the delights of butterscotch Angel Delight (still nice, but a bit icky and made me feel a bit strange).
Part of me would love to highlight some of the hilarious and wonderful sentences, but, you know what? Just make a cuppa, grab a packet of biscuits, and read the book. It’s a real treat.
Vicky Newham © 2016