A missing boy. A missing book. A missing husband. A woman who must find them all to find herself. On the night Bernadette finally has the courage to tell her domineering husband that she’s leaving, he doesn’t come home. Neither does Conor, the little boy she’s befriended for the past five years. Also missing is his lifebook, the only thing that holds the answers. With the help of Conor’s foster mum, Bernadette must face her own past, her husband’s secrets and a future she never dared imagine in order to find them all.
Exquisitely written and deeply touching, The Mountain in My Shoe is both a gripping psychological thriller and a powerful and emotive examination of the meaning of family… and just how far we’re willing to go for the people we love.
I must admit – just between you and me – I was quite nervous about this one. Louise Beech’s first novel, How To Be Brave, was so absolutely perfect – you’ll find my review here – that I really wondered quite how she was going to follow it up. The Mountain In My Shoe was published for kindle by Orenda Books on 23rd July: the paperback will follow on 30th September. And do you know, I really needn’t have worried at all…
This is – in many ways – a very different book from How To Be Brave. But it does share a lot that made that first book such a delight. First and foremost, there’s the quality of the writing – and the author has an innate ability to make you care about and feel deeply for all her characters, a deft touch in writing about emotions and relationships, while also producing a real page-turner of a story.
Bernadette won my heart in the first few vivid scene-setting chapters – as well as capturing her anguish at the loss of “the book”, we see a dissection of her relationship with her husband, gain a detailed picture of her home, and enough clues are left that this might not be the most perfect of marriages. The slow reveal of some of the incidents and exchanges that have brought Bernadette to this point in the story of her marriage – with more detail emerging as the story progresses – is exceptionally well done, with real insight into the realities of the less obvious kind of abuse to which she is subjected by her husband.
Then there is Conor, the child that Bernadette has befriended – but who has equally befriended her. He has a clear and endearing voice throughout, authentically childlike but reflecting the life experience that has shaped him, with his moving passion for everything to do with his hero Muhammad Ali for a whole range of believable and unbearably poignant reasons. Conor’s story is a heartbreaking one, and the book’s structure is the perfect way to tell it: the extracts from his lifebook, a documented history of a child’s life within the care system, punctuate the narrative and provide all the background and context the reader needs. We gain an insight into Conor’s earlier life and the lives of those people who have been key figures in it through the notes, extracts of reports and letters kept within its pages – these individuals have clear voices too, and in many cases we form opinions of our own about their actions.
There are lesser characters in this book – in the past and present day – that also leave an indelible impression. The taxi driver, Bob, was a particular favourite of mine, a bluff Yorkshireman not afraid of showing his feelings for someone he knows to be troubled. Conor’s various foster carers leave their own impressions for a whole variety of reasons, with the most recent, Anne, with a love and warmth that radiates from the pages, achieved through the smallest of touches and observations. I really liked Jim, Conor’s first social worker, too – we never meet him, but his badly handwritten notes recur within the lifebook and are a wonderful reminder that officialdom can, just sometimes, have a caring side.
The sense of place in this book is tremendous. Set primarily in and around Hull and East Yorkshire, the dark waters of the Humber are a constant presence, with the ominous foghorn heard at night, lightened only by the twinkling lights of the bridge. The claustrophobic Tower Rise apartment almost has the presence of another character – with its bookshelves, pantry, damp stain on the wall, and the line of trees that protect it and offer Bernadette solace.
And as if all this isn’t enough, I haven’t even mentioned the story that drives the narrative – perhaps not entirely unpredictable, but still a tense edge-of-your-seat thriller of a read where lives and futures are under threat, full of excitement and incident and unexpected twists and turns.
But for me, this book wasn’t so much about the story at its centre but about the hopes, dreams and futures of the people who are part of it. Above all, it was about what might happen when the excitement is over – when Bernadette and Conor have overcome the mountains, and deserve a happy ending so much that you ache in the hope that it might happen. You may put the book down when it ends, but it will remain in your thoughts for a very long time thereafter.
My review is based on a purchased e-copy.
Louise Beech remembers sitting in her father’s cross-legged lap while he tried to show her his guitar’s chords. He’s a musician. Her small fingers stumbled and gave up. She was three. His music sheets fascinated her – such strange language that translated into music. Her mother teaches languages, French and English, so her fluency with words fired Louise’s interest. She knew from being small that she wanted to write, to create, to make magic.
She loves all forms of writing. Her short stories have won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, and the Aesthetica Creative Works competition, as well as shortlisting twice for the Bridport Prize and being published in a variety of UK magazines. Her first play, Afloat, was performed at Hull Truck Theatre in 2012. She also wrote a ten-year newspaper column for the Hull Daily Mail about being a parent, garnering love/hate criticism. Her debut novel was a Guardian Readers’ pick for 2015.
She is inspired by life, history, survival and love, and always has a story in her head. Her debut novel, How to be Brave, came from truth – when Louise’s daughter got Type 1 Diabetes she helped her cope by sharing her grandad’s real life sea survival story. Her second novel, The Mountain in my Shoe, will be released in September 2016 and was inspired by her time working with children in the care system.
When she was fifteen Louise bet her mother ten pounds she’d be published by the time she was thirty. She missed this self-set deadline by two months. Her mother is still waiting for the money.
Follow Louise on Twitter: she also has an excellent website.
(It also has to be said – just between you and me again – that she can also frequently be found clutching a bottle of prosecco at the very best book-related parties. I love her dearly, and she makes me laugh more than anyone else I know…and I’m totally delighted that, whether by accident or design, she chose to give one of the characters in this wonderful story my name.)
|Launch party for Amanda Jennings’ In Her Wake|