At first I wasn’t at all sure how I should introduce Miss Odeline Milk, but as I thought I realised it was obvious that all I had to say was that you really should meet her.
Odeline was the daughter of a bookkeeper and a circus clown. Eunice Milk was a quiet, capable, solitary woman, with a weakness for slapstick comedy. It was an evening at the circus, an encounter with a clown while she had stars in her eyes, that gave her a daughter, and Odeline inherited the talents of both of her parents.
I was told all of this at the start by a wonderful narrator, a storyteller who knew just what to point put, just what to carefully explain, and just how to move the story forwards. My favourite kind of narrator.
When her mother died and she was left alone on the world, Odeline set off for London, to embark on a career as mime and an illusionist. And to find her father. Her home would be a houseboat, selected for economy and for the belief that her name was a wonderful omen – Chaplin & Company!
It was lovely to see Odeline set off with such confidence, such faith in the future, and to see every detail as she found and settled into her new home. She was young and gauche, focused on honing her skills to the exclusion of everything else, insensitive to the concerns of others, and awkward in social skills. But I did like her, and I thought that it might be interesting to watch her growing up. It was.
But this isn’t just Odeline’s story.
It’s the story of the community she joined on the Grand Union Canal:
- John Kettle, the alcoholic canal warden at a turning point in his life
- Ridley, the ponytailed, tattooed traveller, who had seen and learned much.
- Vera, the refuge from Eastern Europe who kept an eye on Odeline but was anxious that nobody should keep an eye on her.
And it was the story of Chaplin & Company:
- The boatbuilder whose creation she was
- The troubled evacuee who had come to love her
- The couple who used to live on her
Each story was engaging, and there were moments of such emotional honesty that brought a lump to my throat.
And threaded through all of this was Odeline, as she became part of the canalside community and as she learned some of life’s lessons.
The problem though was that the book wasn’t quite big enough to hold all of those stories, and some of them were a little bit squashed. Characters changed a little too quickly, some things weren’t considered as carefully as they might have been, and endings were rushed. There wasn’t a story that didn’t work, there wasn’t a story I’d want to lose, I just wanted them all to have a little more room to breath and grow naturally.
The storytelling was wonderful, I loved the style. And I loved the way that I was swept up into Odeline’s world.
I quickly became attached to all of the characters, and I was sorry to have to say goodbye when I reached the final place.
It was an ending rather than a resolution – and Odeline still has a long way to go – so there’s definitely room for a sequel.
I would love to read a sequel …
I love books set on canals & houseboats! I’d be interested in this just from the setting, but it sounds like a wonderful story, even with the squashing of some of the story lines.
There is a lot of lovely descriptive detail about the setting and I did like the characters, so I’d definitely say you should give it a try Lisa.
You always find the most interesting books; I don’t know how you do it. This one sounds very original. I’m definitely adding it to my list. Thanks for yet another great recommendation!
Too much time browsing! Plus my philosophy is that the big mainstream books will always be there but if I don’t pick up the less obvious books I might forget them or never find them again