It’s a real pleasure to be joining the blog tour today for How to Belong by Sarah Franklin, and sharing my review. Published by Zaffre Books on 12th November – its publication delayed since May – it’s now available both in hardcover and as an e-book. My thanks to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for the invitation and support, and to the publishers for my advance reading e-copy (provided via netgalley).
I sadly didn’t manage to read Sarah’s 2017 debut novel, Shelter – but I very much liked the look of it. So when I spotted this one, her second, I knew it was a book I wanted to read – but that publication date delay must have been so very frustrating for everyone involved.
A moving and courageous exploration of belonging and finding home in a rapidly-changing world from the critically acclaimed author of Shelter.
Jo grew up in the Forest of Dean, but she was always the one destined to leave for a bigger, brighter future. When her parents retire from their butcher’s shop, she returns to her beloved community to save the family legacy, hoping also to save herself. But things are more complex than the rose-tinted version of life which sustained Jo from afar.
Tessa is a farrier, shoeing horses two miles and half a generation away from Jo, further into the forest. Tessa’s experience of the community couldn’t be more different. Now she too has returned, in flight from a life she could have led, nursing a secret and a past filled with guilt and shame.
Compelled through circumstance to live together, these two women will be forced to confront their sense of identity, and reconsider the meaning of home.
Opening with the approach of Christmas in the busy village butchers’ shop in the Forest of Dean, perhaps the delayed publication of this book was always meant to be – but although the small family business has always been the heart of the rural community, the supermarkets on the edge of town have made life considerably more difficult. When Jo’s parents decide that the time has come to retire and move closer to family, she decides to take on the business: armed with spreadsheets and big ideas, challenging the way things have always been done, she walks away from her career as a junior barrister and seeks the comfort of the place – home – where she was happy.
Tessa has spent time away from the community too, although she’s always been rather on its periphery, her life blighted by a traumatic event in her youth that left her with pain and guilt: with the end of her relationship with Marnie and her life in Bristol, a rare time when she felt she belonged, now living in an isolated cottage on the edge of the forest, her sexuality and her increasing ill health have increased her isolation and social awkwardness, as she works as the local farrier and ekes a precarious living.
These two very different women are brought together when Jo needs somewhere to live, and Tessa decides that taking a lodger will both boost her finances and provide some reassurance as her health deteriorates. Initially, their relationship is difficult – Jo naturally bouncy and outgoing, Tessa shunning human contact and finding her presence distinctly unwelcome. But slowly, very slowly, the women draw closer to each other. Jo finds that coming home hasn’t been entirely what she’d hoped for, that place of warmth and sanctuary – life has changed, a childhood friendship she thought she could rely on just isn’t the support she expected it to be, and the challenge of running the business prove greater than she ever imagined. And Tessa finds Jo unexpectedly supportive, perhaps helping her find some hope for the future.
This is a story about home and belonging, about finding your place, discovering your self and what makes you happy – through the lives of these two sympathetically drawn women, both of whom captured my heart. The book has an exceptional sense of place, both the village high street fast becoming a relic of the past and the natural world of the forest, often a sanctuary but sometimes something quite other. The point of view alternates gently between them, interspersed with the memories that have shaped them both – the story isn’t fast paced, but I found it absolutely compelling and particularly engaging at an emotional level.
The writing is wonderful, sometimes focusing in detail on the ordinary and everyday – the forging and fitting of a horseshoe, the triumph of producing a line of perfect sausages – then dipping into the poignancy of a memory, examining an emotional response, setting a scene with an almost poetic beauty and turn of phrase. It’s a book that really makes you feel – and, despite that strong sense of place and the unfamiliarity of both women’s chosen paths, those feelings are universal, that powerful need to feel that you’ve come home and that you truly belong.
This might be the first of Sarah Franklin’s books I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last – I really loved this one, and recommend it highly.
About the author
Sarah Franklin grew up in rural Gloucestershire and now lives with her family between Oxford and London. She has written for the Guardian, Psychologies magazine, The Pool, the Sunday Express and the Seattle Times. Her creative non-fiction has been published in anthologies in the USA and appeared on radio affiliates there.
Sarah is founder and host of popular Oxford literary night, Short Stories Aloud, a Senior Lecturer at the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies, and a judge for the Costa Short Story Award.