It’s a real pleasure today to be helping launch the blog tour for the latest book from the wonderful Louise Walters Books, and sharing my review of Mrs Narwhal’s Diary by S.J. Norbury, due for publication on 16th May. Available in paperback and digital formats, it’s available for pre-order and purchase via Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones, Book Depository, Blackwell’s, and also for Nook devices: but it’s also available both as a paperback and in a range of e-formats direct from Louise Walters Books, which I always think is a rather nice way of being able to say thank you for her hard work in bringing us so many excellent books (and there’s 15% off ALL books bought through the website for the month of May, using the code MAYDAY at checkout). My thanks to Emma at #damppebblesblogtours for the tour invitation and all her support.
I took a look at some of Louise’s tweets the other day, just to see what she was saying about this book. I found exactly what I was looking for – “laugh-out-loud-funny, characters who feel like old friends, a crumbling country house setting… it’s the perfect summer read… a bit “I Capture the Castle” too…”. And I was definitely looking forward to this one…
“It was Woman’s Hour who suggested I keep a diary. They said it was good for mental health, and I must say I did feel much less frazzled after writing everything down yesterday. The frustrations were all still there, but somehow smoothed out – as if by a really good steam iron.”
Mrs Narwhal is overwhelmed. Her husband, Hugh, is unkind and unhappy – working every hour at a job he hates to save the ancestral home he never wanted. Then there’s Hugh’s sister, Rose, who’s spurned her one true love, and ricochets from crisis to crisis; and not to mention two small boys to bring up safely in a house that could crumble around their ears at any moment…
When Hugh’s pride receives a fatal blow, and he walks out, Mrs Narwhal is plunged into a crisis of both heart and home. With help from Rose she sets out to save the house her husband couldn’t. But can she save her marriage? And does she really want Hugh back?
Funny, charming, and moving, Mrs Narwhal’s Diary is an irresistible story which will enchant and delight its readers.
Well, I must say I’m rather glad that Mrs Narwhal listened to that advice on Woman’s Hour – this book really was rather wonderful. Her voice as narrator – the book is her diary – is wonderfully clear and consistent, taking us through the daily ups and downs of her family life.
Living at Narwhal Hall, a stately pile that they never have the money or energy to repair, she’s the one who always copes. This isn’t a fast paced read, and there are no real fireworks – or actually, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that there is more a series of small explosions that she deals with in her own way, with admirable equanimity (well, mostly, while paddling desperately beneath the water’s surface), acute powers of observation, and an eye for the humour in every possible situation.
Husband Hugh – the house inherited through his family line, with a weight of tradition and obligation – is inclined to be disengaged from any of the day-to-day drama, disappearing to his workshop where he yearns to make original furniture but instead earns the family income by upholstering furniture for a succession of unreasonably demanding customers. The couple rub along, often more easily with a few bottles of wine – and he’s the one that creates the drama when he abruptly decides to disappear, something she’s contemplated herself on more than one occasion, with the enigmatic message “Gone off”. They have two young sons – such well drawn characters, and very real – and an extended family who feature quite heavily. And the other main character is really Rose, Hugh’s sister – a little flaky, high maintenance, mercurial, a little exotic, her morals sometimes a little questionable – who becomes a fixture to a greater degree than is good for anyone involved.
And then there’s a very large supporting cast – and the way they’re introduced into the story, sometimes only passing through, sometimes influencing events or very much part of the action, is one of the things I really enjoyed about the writing. Every individual is, of course, seen through Mrs Narwhal’s lens, with her observations and little anecdotes, her eye for the small detail – the humour always bubbles just below the surface, sometimes gloriously breaking forth, and I have to say it’s all an absolute joy to read. My personal favourite? Jo, the ferocious cleaning lady, with her fleeting appearances – a luxury they can’t really afford, but Mrs Narwhal is too terrified of her to dispense with her services.
The joy of this book really is in the detail – a series of the most vividly captured vignettes of family life and social interactions, with some lovely (and sometimes rather horrific) moments that will be immediately recognisable and easy to identify with for anyone who’s part of an equally chaotic family. It also focuses beautifully on the realities of love and marriage, often with particular poignancy – the Narwhals themselves, and a whole range of other fascinating relationships and alliances. The setting – Narwhal Hall itself, the equally disintegrating tree house that opens the book and continues as a theme, the poorly designed gardens that she struggles to maintain – is so perfectly created that it almost becomes another character in the narrative.
I really only have one very small criticism – while I really did love the whole “voice” of the story, I might just have liked the book to be a teeny bit shorter, maybe with a tad less reflection in the last quarter and a more sustained and determined narrative drive towards the book’s conclusion. I did feel it rather petered out towards the end – or maybe it was just reading fatigue, and my own focus was beginning to waver a little.
But this was a book I really enjoyed – it was highly original, beautifully written, the humour was perfectly judged for my taste, and the narrator herself was exceptionally sympathetic and engaging. It might not be a book for everyone, but it’s one I’d most certainly recommend, and I’m rather looking forward to seeing what SJ Norbury might try next.
About the author
S J Norbury lives in Herefordshire with her family. Mrs Narwhal’s Diary is her first novel.