Book No 46 (2014) : The Girl in the Photograph

girl in the photoThe Girl in the Photograph‘ is Isabel Stanton, the daughter of Elizabeth and her husband, Edward. Alice comes across the photograph in the nursery of Fiercombe, a grand home in a Gloucestershire valley. Alice has been sent to Fiercombe from London, where she had embarked upon a love affair with a married man, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy. Shamed by her daughter’s predicament, Alice’s mother sends her away to have her baby, expecting her to return to have the illegitimate child adopted. But Fiercombe begins to divulge its secrets, as the narrative alternates between the lives of Elizabeth and Alice. Is there a devastating link between the past and the present?

Kate Riordan‘s moving novel tackles a taboo topic, in a sensitive yet enquiring way. According to the mental health charity Mind, post-natal depression affects 10-15% of new mothers. It leaves women isolated and fearful. Postpartum psychosis (or puerperal psychosis) is a severe episode of mental illness which begins suddenly in the days following childbirth; it is more likely to occur if a close relative has also experienced it. The author’s descriptions are not evasive, or vague; it seemed to me as if she is well acquainted with the physical and emotional states of pregnancy, the preoccupations and inner lives of mothers-to-be. She also examines the powerlessness of women who came to be diagnosed as insane, and subjected to ineffective and humiliating forms of treatment.

Set against the backdrop of a stately home (which I understand is inspired by a real place, Owlpen in Gloucestershire), this novel has a small but perfectly formed cast of characters, amongst which Fiercombe and Stanton House are as important as people.

There is an unexpected and somewhat macabre revelation about the truth of behind the photo of Isabel, which had me rushing to Google! The ending of the novel, whilst somewhat predictable, was also pleasing, concluding the threads of the story very neatly. I enjoyed this book and am sure it will be a great success, particularly with (dare I say) female book groups, as there are a number of issues which just beg to be aired and shared over a glass of wine and a few nibbles! That is not to trivialise them, more to emphasise that discussion of ‘The Girl in the Photograph’ could be the springboard for some important conversations amongst sufferers (and survivors) of PND.

I read this book as a review copy from Net Galley; it will be published on 15 January 2015.

Book No 13 (2014) : The Universe vs Alex Woods

alex woodsI suggested that my book buddies read this for our March meeting – so, if you are in my book group, look away now! It was recommended by a friend who raved about it and I have to say I agree with her view that it was one of the best things we had read in ages.

Alex Woods is a young lad who, following a freak encounter with nature, develops a form of epilepsy. This, together with his social awkwardness, leaves him isolated and without many friends of his own age. Circumstances throw him in the path (well, actually it’s the garden shed) of an elderly neighbour, Mr Peterson. The two form an unlikely friendship, despite their age difference. When Mr Peterson starts to develop some disturbing health problems, he and Alex make a controversial decision which alleviates the older man’s worries about living with a degenerative condition.

The joy of this book for me was Alex’s character. I do not want to label him, but he does display many of the characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome. He is extremely literal, has to work hard at banal pleasantries and is disconcertingly honest. He is also compassionate, observant, intelligent and has an enquiring mind which allows him to seek out and remember facts about a wide range of topics. These vary from astronomy and neurology to Kurt Vonnegut and Alex’s diverse knowledge is the source of a great deal of the warmth and humour of the book.

One criticism I did have though, is that the novel starts with the ending of the story. I wished this had been different; although the conclusion starts to become clear, I think I would have preferred the revelation to have been at the close of the narrative.

But, to be honest, I’m being picky. I defy anyone not to enjoy this heart-warming read. Whether you like Kurt Vonnegut or not!