This is a very unusual novel and I feel that it must have been inspired from life events of the author, Sarah Winman. Nevertheless, I do not hold enough superlatives in my vocabulary to describe how beautifully written this debut novel is. The language is simplistic yet elegant in its flow without compromised levels of sophistication making this novel an effortless read. It’s a novel about the journey of life. It contains bitter-sweet recollections of family, friends, love, loss and the unpredictable nature of life.
It is written primarily from the perspective of a lady named Elly and concentrates on her many life events from a young age to an adult. The story is divided into two parts, 1968 and 1995, the first of which deals with the childhood of our narrator Elly, spent in Essex and Cornwall and the latter concerns events in Elly’s life as an adult, mostly in London and New York. The book has a strong autobiographical element to it as many of Elly’s most significant life events are told. On this note, the reader may easily be mistaken into believing that the story is a sensationalised life story however, this can easily be applied to any individual when the most influential moments of life are reflected upon.
This narrative is based on the key moments of life who comes from a happy, stable family unit. Family relationships are a strong focus for the author, especially the bond between Elly and her older brother, Joe who is at pains to ‘fit in’ with his peers. The Portman family are not your average middle-class family and this is clearly demonstrated when they move to Cornwall and open an unconventional Bed & Breakfast business which attracts some idiosyncratic characters. Moving to Cornwall means an end to Elly’s close relationship with her best friend Jenny Penny but this bond is renewed in the second half of the book. Despite this protective and loving family environment, Elly experiences many difficult and traumatising events such as the close encounters with death of her friends and family, betrayal and uncertainty. The darkest experience Elly has is when she is reunited with her childhood friend Jenny Penny. Jenny’s decent is from a dysfunction family unit, where love, respect and responsibility are unheard of. Jenny has a very challenging childhood and adult life and although she isn’t portrayed by the author as an envious individual, Jenny certainly yearns to be a part of Elly’s life. One of the key theme’s throughout the book is Elly’s naïve realisation of the dissimilarities between families and that life does not serve everyone luck as it had served her. As an adult, Elly understands and accepts that despite all that life had thrown at her, she has been fortunate.
This novel is thankfully nothing like many other debut novels I’ve read which can often be boring, slow and long-winded! Yes the novel is a ‘busy’ one, ladened with big themes such as love in a wide variety of contexts, bereavement, humour, familial relationships and personal identity. In addition, it is brimming with events in history and time but the story, despite being fictional, feels so honest and true that gave it a sense of realism. There is a genuine mix of events, twists and turns leaving the reader unaware of what lies ahead therefore it continually manages to surprise and delight.
Sarah Winman has written an extraordinary novel, with a very distinctive and creative tone which conveys the naïve views of Elly and yet her writing remains fluid, whimsical and almost magical even when exploring the darker side of humanity. The characters have been handled with exquisite sensitivity, and can only be described as quirky but fully rounded, believable and highly engaging.
This was a first-rate, beautifully, and most stunningly written book, I highly recommend it!