Hate the title — so cutesy, and if the book hadn’t been recommended by a book club member I wouldn’t have picked it up. But soon after opening it, I was hooked. Sarah Winman is an extremely promising writer who just needs — have I said this before? — more editing. To be fair to her editor, it would have been difficult to work on this book. It is a first-time novel that contains material enough for three books. So much to say, so many ideas: they all come tumbling out, unstoppably. But Winman’s writing is quite beautiful and, a lot of the time, she has a light touch.
Protagonist Elly has an offbeat take on the world. There are two people who are important to the five-year-old Elly: her brother Joe and her new friend Jenny Penny. Joe and Jenny both have secrets; for that matter, so does Elly.
It’s tempting to compare the Elly of the early part of the book with Jack, the five-year-old boy who narrates Room. Again, you see the confusing and sometimes bizarre adult world through the eyes of a smart child: it’s an effective device. But this Elly is really the older Elly looking back and remembering her childhood with adult editorializing, unlike the of-the-moment observations of five-year-old Jack’s life.
Jenny Penny’s mother was as different from mine as any mother could be; …
“‘Mrs Penny’ sounds so old, Elly. We’re friends. Call me Hayley. Or Hayles.”
“OK, Mrs Penny, I will next time,” I said. But I couldn’t.
Her everyday existence was secretive. She didn’t have a job but was rarely at home, and Jenny Penny had few clues to her mother’s lifestyle, except that she loved having boyfriends and loved developing various hobbies that were conducive to her lifestyle as a “gypsy.”
“What’s a gypsy?” I asked.
“People who travel from place to place,” said Jenny Penny.
“Have you done that a lot?” I asked.
“Quite a lot,” she said.
“Is it fun?” I asked.
“Not always,” she said.
“Because people chase us.”
Perhaps partly because of her nomadic upbringing and Mrs Penny’s lack of parenting skills, Jenny has an other-worldly streak. She has a sixth sense that shows up at times, although she is unable to hear Elly’s rabbit, god, speak, whereas Elly has conversations with him. (These conversations are not as annoying as they might sound, although I am not sure what they add to the story other than a touch of magic realism that’s echoed in Jenny’s mysterious abilities and, later on, Arthur’s foreknowledge of his death.)
As Elly navigates her way through her childhood, she has her own fearless logic and is willing to risk adult anger to do and say as she wants. Either she has not yet picked up the ability to fit in or she is willing to go her own way to the point of provoking disaster. This leads to one of the funniest scenes in the book during the school Nativity play:
“Yeees?” I said, the way Nancy had told me to say it and I opened the door and quickly stepped forward into Mary’s light. The audience gasped. Nancy said I looked like a cross between Roy Orbison and the dwarf in Don’t Look Now. I knew who neither was.
“I am Mary and this is Joseph. We have nowhere to stay. Do you have room in your inn?”
My heart thumped; my tongue felt thick and heavy. Say it, go on, say it.
“You need a room?” I said, suddenly veering away from the script.
I saw Mary and Joseph look at each other. Miss Grogney peered from the wings at me, holding up her script and pointing to it.
“Let me think,” I said.
The silence in the theatre was thick, clawing with anticipation. My heart was beating hard, my throat tight. Say it, I said to myself, say it, and then I did.
“Yes,” I said, “I have a room with a lovely view, at an excellent rate. Come this way, please,” and with my white stick tapping ahead, two thousand years of Christianity was instantly challenged as I led Mary (now crying) and Joseph towards a double en-suite with TV and mini bar.
The scene is hilarious, though on sober second thought it is perhaps a little too funny to have unrolled the way it does: it’s written to appeal to the adult reader.
As Elly grows up, she loses touch with Jenny. Her life is filled with a cast of other characters: her parents, Charlie, Nancy, Arthur, Ginger — larger than life creations who take on an importance to Elly that is stated but not felt. Jenny Penny, perhaps predictably, has been abused and leads a tragic life in her teens and twenties, although eventually the two friends reunite when Jenny is in prison.
Joe is the quintessential big brother. His life parallels Elly’s. He too has lost an early and very important connection — his beloved Charlie, who reappears later in the book. The events of Charlie’s life include some pretty dramatic moments, although we don’t ever get to know Charlie very well as an individual and the whole kidnapping episode is surreal.
At the time of reading, the magic of Winman’s writing kept me buoyed up and willing to suspend disbelief. For the first day I couldn’t put it down: I devoured the pages, loving the odd people and situations and the way the humour almost but not quite obscured the everyday tragedies just visible underneath.
By the middle of the book, I had started to feel that Winman was just adding more and more to the pot, unaware that it had started to boil over. It became way too absurd by the end. The 9-11 tie-in was just over the top. There are too many stylistic devices and too many plot twists, too many annoyingly crazy/lovable characters, and too many current events inserted as background colour.
But I retain that memory of sheer enjoyment as the words washed over me in the beginning and that will encourage me to look out for Winman’s next book.