A familiar structure: a story in the present, a story in the past, a revelation that explains the link between the two and leads to a resolution. But Eleanor Thom uses it well and has enough that is distinctive that I didn’t think of that until I started to wonder how to start writing, and I can quite understand how this book won her the Saltire Society’s award for the Scottish First Book of the Year’.
The story in the present belongs to Dawn. Dawn was brought up by her Aunt Shirley. She went to stay with Shirley when her mother was in hospital giving birth to her younger sister. Her sister was born on Dawn’s birthday, and so the promised treats and presents never came, lost in the rejoicing over the new arrival. Understandable maybe, but you can feel Dawn’s emotional turmoil. And her parents never did remember, and Dawn never did come home. Shirley brought her up.
Now Dawn has a young daughter, and has fled from an abusive partner. And Shirley has died, leaving Dawn her flat and drawing her back to the small Highland town that she left years before.
The story in the past belongs to Jock, who was beaten to death in a prison cell in 1954. Jock’s story, and the story of the travelling community he belonged to, is told by his mother and his niece. Two distinctive voices, and they paint a wonderful picture of life in a community that I knew nothing about. They speak in local dialects. Not too difficult to follow, and it works rather well.
So how are those two very different stories linked? Very simply. Dawn finds the key to the cupboard that Shirley would never allow her to open. Inside the cupboard is a photograph album, full of pictures of – who? Well, of course, Dawn tries to find out, and learns a great deal that was previously unsaid about the history of her family.
All of the strands are engaging and well written – Eleanor Thom uses language very well – and they are well balanced, so that moving between past and present feels entirely natural. The details feel right. Plot developments feel natural too. Not surprising maybe, but that doesn’t matter, because they feel right.
My one reservation was that it was difficult to become involved with the characters. This is a book where you watch and hear about people, rather than meeting and becoming involved with them, Not wrong of course, and I’m sure that it was the author’s intention, but I wanted that sense of involvement.
And I think it was why I finished feeling objectively that this was a good book, rather than feeling emotionally that this was a book I loved.
Yes, definitely a good book. And an accomplished debut by an author with the potential to maybe write a great book one of these days.