It’s an immense pleasure today to be joining the blog tour and sharing my review of The String Games by Gail Aldwin, to be published by Victorina Press on 28th May: there’s no Amazon link for this one until publication, but it is available to pre-order from the publisher.
You might remember that Gail has already been my guest once before here on Being Anne: I very much enjoyed her short fiction collection, Paisley Shirt, last year, and you’ll find my review here, together with our interview. I know that this, her debut novel, has been five years in the making, and I was really looking forward to seeing how the emotional impact of her beautifully crafted words would translate into the longer form: my thanks to Gail for the invitation to join her tour, and for the advance e-copy to read and review.
When four-year-old Josh is abducted and murdered during a family holiday in France, Nim, aged ten, becomes an only child. To cope with the tragedy, Nim reinvents herself but continues to carry a burden of unresolved grief. As an adult, she returns to France determined to find out more about the circumstances of Josh’s death. How will she deal with this new information and what are the implications for her future?
I’ve noticed, while reading some background information, that the author describes her book as a psychological drama: indeed it is, but it’s also an authentic and moving coming of age story, a quite wonderful portrayal of the impact of grief, loss and guilt, and an immensely engaging and well-told story.
Although written in the third person, the first part of the book captures quite perfectly the voice and thoughts of ten year old Nim, in Rodez in France for a caravan holiday with her mother and younger brother Josh, where they will be joined by Dee and her daughter Ella. The narrative is very skilfully handled, capturing perfectly her innocence and naivety, her personal observations on everything she encounters – and there’s a deliberate innocence to the writing too, its content reflected in every carefully chosen word and expression.
There’s a sure emotional touch too – the kind of acute embarrassment and awkwardness only felt by a young girl, the delight in simple pleasures like ice cream or the forbidden scooter, the racing pulse of attraction to the exotic Maxime with his links to “the bad boys”. The anguish at Josh’s disappearance is handled quite exceptionally – through the eyes of Nim, with her limited understanding, the significant adults in her life pursuing their own agendas as she crumples beneath the guilt of her involvement.
Another of the other strengths of that first part of the story is its vivid sense of place – Le Camping with its small shop and playground, the countryside leading to the river and the beach – and the way the author infuses it with heat and a sense of claustrophobia that makes it a perfect backdrop for the story that unfolds.
While that first section is particularly well done – and perhaps my favourite part of the book – the story and its well-drawn characters then move on.
We next see Nim in her teens, five years later – that contrast between vulnerability and teenage bolshiness, beginning to establish her identity, on the verge of adulthood, choosing (sometimes unsuitable) friends and losing others, the shadow of Josh’s loss pushed into the background but sometimes exploding into the forefront. And then, it’s five years later again – and Nim (her identity now fixed as Imogen) is a rather solitary figure, still struggling to move beyond the childhood trauma, returning to Rodez, retracing her steps and revisiting the earlier events in the hope of being able to move forward.
The book’s whole is tightly plotted, the threads knotted like the string game of the title. There’s a mystery here, intriguing and only fully resolved and explained at the book’s end: but the novel’s drive is more about Nim’s personal journey, her changing relationships with others as she tries to escape the guilt of her youth, and I found that journey quite fascinating. It’s ultimately a story of hope and forgiveness, fresh starts and new beginnings: it’s quite beautifully written, and I enjoyed it very much.
About the author
Settled in Dorset since 2006, Gail Aldwin has lived in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Spain. Her short fiction collection Paisley Shirt was longlisted in the best short story category of the Saboteur Awards 2018. She co-writes comedy sketches and short plays which have been performed in Brighton, Salisbury and Bridport. Winner of the Bournemouth National Poetry Day competition 2016, Gail’s poetry is included in the poetry trail at Beaumont Park, Huddersfield and can be found at Flaghead Chine Seaside Garden, Poole. Her first poetry pamphlet adversaries/comrades is based on the theme of siblings and was published earlier this year by The Student Wordsmith. As chair of the Dorset Writers’ Network, Gail works with the steering group to inspire writers and connect creative communities. She also supports undergraduates on the Creative Writing BA (Hons) at Art University Bournemouth as a visiting tutor.