It’s a real pleasure today to be joining the blog tour for Old Bones, the second Morevale novel from Helen Kitson: published by Louise Walters Books on 18th January, it’s now available in both paperback and digital formats. You might like to buy your paperback copy direct from the publisher here (postage free in the UK), but it’s also available via Foyles and Waterstones, or via Amazon in the UK and US. My thanks to Emma at #damppebblesblogtours for the invitation and support, and to the publisher for providing an e-copy for review.
If you’ve yet to discover Louise Walters Books, I’d commend this small press very highly – every book so carefully chosen, and I always have a real sense of excitement and anticipation at each new release. I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Helen Kitson’s last book, The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson – you’ll find my review here – and very much enjoyed the characterisation and the quality of the writing. I was particularly looking forward to a return to Morevale…
Diana and her sister Antonia are house-sharing spinsters who have never got over their respective first loves. Diana owns a gift shop, but rarely works there. Antonia is unemployed, having lost her teaching job at an all girls’ school following a shocking outburst in the classroom after enduring years of torment. Diana is a regular at the local library, Antonia enjoys her “nice” magazines, and they treat themselves to coffee and cake once a week in the village café.
Naomi lives alone, haunted by the failure of her two marriages. She works in the library, doesn’t get on with her younger colleagues, and rarely cooks herself a proper meal. Secretly she longs for a Boden frock.
When a body is discovered in the local quarry, all three women’s lives are turned upside down. And when Diana’s old flame Gill turns up unexpectedly, tensions finally spill over and threaten to destroy the outwardly peaceful lives all three women have carefully constructed around themselves.
Helen takes us back to the fictional Shropshire village of Morevale in this, her brilliant second novel which exposes the fragilities and strengths of three remarkably unremarkable elderly women.
Diana Cambridge, another of Louise Walters Books’ excellent authors, described Helen Kitson’s first book as “Barbara Pym noir”: that description perfectly managed my expectations as I grew increasingly comfortable with this novel’s very different pace (and content, and style) from my usual reading. In many ways, it’s about small lives fraught with disappointment, distorted memories, gently told – but it also simmers quite deliciously with frustration, impatience, dissatisfaction and suppressed anger. The discovery of a body in a nearby quarry provides a catalyst to the story, but so does the reappearance of Diana’s old flame Gill – and the way small revelations and surprises are dripped into the story makes it a compelling and fascinating read, and one I really enjoyed.
The first person narrator is Diana – 63, and having spent many years caring for her mother, her involvement in the gift shop she owns no longer needed, she’d rather expected an easy and solitary later life, enjoying books and crosswords and lingering over the lost opportunities of her youth. Instead, she finds herself living uneasily with sister Antonia – spiky, unpredictable, a little eccentric – whose teaching career ended under something of a cloud and drove her return to the former family home. Their relationship is a difficult one, their exchanges unpredictably charged and volatile – the occasional venom can be quite uncomfortable to read, Antonia’s story told in the third person but still providing insights into her actions and secret life. Living together is very difficult indeed – but living apart is something neither of them feels is a real option.
Naomi – whose story is also told in the third person – is the local librarian. Twice married, her life is a lonely one – with fond memories of her first marriage, bitter regrets about her second – as she finds herself increasingly out of place at work among the younger volunteers, yet dreading the time when she must leave and need to fill the endless days. Her second husband disappeared, and she’s convinced it’s his body that’s been found in the quarry – and the reasons why her conviction is so strong are gradually revealed.
The appearance of Gill – the passion of Diana’s youth – shakes everything up. It brings back uncomfortable truths and memories that have (perhaps…) been distorted by time, igniting long buried emotions and shining a light on dimly remembered wrongs and actions, increasing the struggle of living in the present.
There were a lot of small things I really liked about this book. It has a timeless quality – although very much set in the present day, the past is where much of the drama happens, if all seen through a distorted lens. The presence of the vicar, although almost superfluous to the story, adds to the Pym-like flavour – and the shared universe her books often featured is also present, with the cleverly and lightly introduced mentions of small facts from the earlier book (something of a treat, but nothing to spoil your enjoyment should this be your first visit to Morevale). The book’s title is particularly clever – perhaps ostensibly the bones found in the quarry, but also the picking apart of the bones of the story itself, the uncovering of all those uncomfortable truths.
The threads of the past slowly untangle – with many surprises along the way – and I found myself entirely immersed and fascinated by the lives of characters so infrequently allowed to take centre stage in contemporary fiction. I will admit to an understandable aversion to describing the characters as “elderly” – they’re younger than I am, although they perhaps seemed rather older – and a shiver at every use of the word “spinster”, which I always find uncomfortably pejorative. But I can forgive that – the characterisation is exceptional, and the three women were never anything but entirely real and easy (perhaps easier than I sometimes liked…) to identify with, however little I liked them at times.
It’s quite a story, and unfolded in a way I really enjoyed – perfectly paced, demanding close attention to the detail lest you miss the many small hints and revelations, an intriguing and rewarding reading experience. Very different, highly original – and a book I’d really recommend to others.
About the author
Helen lives in Worcester with her husband, two teenaged children and two rescue cats. Her first poetry collection was nominated for the Forward Best First Collection Prize. She has published three other poetry collections and her short fiction has appeared in magazines including Ambit, Feminist Review and Stand. She holds a BA (Hons) in Humanities.
Helen’s debut novel The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson was published in March 2019. Her second “Morevale” novel, Old Bones, was published on 16 January 2021.