I’m delighted today to be sharing my publication day review of Katie Allen’s Everything Happens for a Reason, published by Orenda Books. And I really must say a massive thank you to Karen Sullivan, who sometimes knows what books I’ll enjoy even better than I do, and sent me an advance e-copy. Today is e-book publication day, and you can save a little on your e-copy by buying direct from Orenda’s rather snazzy new website: it’ll be out in paperback on 10th June, available for pre-order in all the usual places, but with a £2 saving if you buy via the website.
I probably don’t need to tell anyone about Orenda Books and the wonderful Karen but, if you mainly read lighter romance (as I do these days), they might not be quite as familiar to you as they are to our crime and thriller reading friends. They’re a small independent publisher based in South London, and publish literary fiction – there’s a heavy emphasis on crime/thrillers, roughly half the list is in translation, and the allegiance of their readers is the stuff dreams are made of. Sadly, their books are too rarely featured on my blog – although I’m always keen to share the many fantastic reviews – other than the books of Louise Beech, whose books I discovered and fell in love with (and a little with the author too!) when my reading tastes were a little more eclectic than of late (and yes, a review of Louise’s new one, also published today, will follow as soon as I can manage it!).
But let’s take a closer look at this lovely new one from Katie…
When Rachel’s baby is stillborn, she becomes obsessed with the idea that saving a stranger’s life months earlier is to blame. An unforgettable, heart-wrenching, warm and funny debut.
Mum-to-be Rachel did everything right, but it all went wrong. Her son, Luke, was stillborn and she finds herself on maternity leave without a baby, trying to make sense of her loss.
When a misguided well-wisher tells her that ‘everything happens for a reason’, she becomes obsessed with finding that reason, driven by grief and convinced that she is somehow to blame. She remembers that on the day she discovered her pregnancy, she’d stopped a man from jumping in front of a train, and she s now certain that saving his life cost her the life of her son.
Desperate to find him, she enlists an unlikely ally in Lola, an Underground worker, and Lola’s seven-year-old daughter, Josephine, and eventually tracks him down, with completely unexpected results…
Both a heart-wrenchingly poignant portrait of grief and a gloriously uplifting and disarmingly funny story of a young woman’s determination, Everything Happens for a Reason is a bittersweet, life-affirming read and, quite simply, unforgettable.
I never felt that all-consuming need to be a mother, and I feared it might make it difficult to engage with Rachel’s story. But I have felt the intense pain of loss, and that was enough to make her experience of losing her child – the sheer agony when he was born sleeping – something I had no difficulty in identifying with. Prompted by the platitudes of strangers, that unfeeling “everything happens for a reason”, she pursues her obsession that the guilt and fault stems from an incident on an underground platform – that her action in preventing a man from jumping into the path of a train was the cause of her son’s death.
While it was impossible not to connect with Rachel, and her need to explore some explanation by finding the man and hope to find some deeper reason for her loss, it was the writing that I found it more difficult to engage with at first. It’s written in first person, present tense – or more accurately, second person, because it’s a series of emails with a “you” who’s identity is at first unclear. When you realise who the emails are addressed to, it hits like a hammer blow – much more than a simple device, and incredibly powerful. It also means that everything that happens is a retelling, through Rachel’s own filter – something I’ve never experienced in a book before, it gives the whole account an exceptional feeling of authenticity, and it’s immaculately sustained throughout. Her life view is quirky (what an inadequate word…) and different, but it took me no time at all to fall in love with her, to reach an understanding of her thoughts and feelings and the emotions that underlie them.
If that leaves you with the feeling that this is a sad read, you really couldn’t be further from the truth. Rachel’s obsessive – and successful – quest to find the man she saved leads her down a totally unexpected route, through new friendships and alliances, and into a new obsession with helping others afflicted by loss and everything it entails. At times, it’s very funny indeed – there’s a thread of quite perfect observational humour, driven by the strength of the book’s characters. The gross insensitivity of some – as Rachel struggles with her grief and negotiates the wasteland of her childless maternity leave – frequently makes you gasp, and often makes you rather angry. But there’s also a real lightness at other times – her relationship and adventures with seven year old Lola, the dog-walking in the park, the many small encounters along the way. But the perfect balance between the humour and the intensity of Rachel’s grief and loss is something very special indeed – a delighted smile, sometimes a laugh, often followed by some thought, some observation, that pierces you to the heart and you find yourself in tears again.
The subject matter might be “difficult” – and certainly even more so for many who’ve had similar experiences – but I was quite blown away by this wonderful debut, and this review doesn’t come anywhere near capturing its impact. It’s very different, incredibly powerful, intense and emotional – but also a sheer joy to read, and entirely unforgettable.
About the author
Everything Happens for a Reason is Katie Allen’s first novel. She used to be a journalist and columnist at the Guardian and Observer, and started her career as a Reuters correspondent in Berlin and London.
The events in Everything Happens for a Reason are fiction, but the premise is loosely autobiographical. Katie’s son, Finn, was stillborn in 2010, and her character’s experience of grief and being on maternity leave without a baby is based on her own. And yes, someone did say to her ‘Everything happens for a reason’.
Katie grew up in Warwickshire and now lives in South London with her husband, children, dog, cat and stick insects. When she’s not writing or walking children and dogs, Katie loves baking, playing the piano, reading news and wishing she had written other people’s brilliant novels.