I was very lucky to see Janet Ellis at an event on my book festival day last week so it was fitting that I read and reviewed her latest book How It Was, even though it is another slight deviation from my original challenge list.
In a 1970s village in rural Kent, lives go on in an unremarkable way. But Marion Deacon, struggling with being a wife and mother, is about to set events in motion that she cannot control in a story of love, motherhood, betrayal, and long-hidden secrets . . . because everyone has at least one secret.
Marion Deacon sits by the hospital bed of her dying husband, Michael. Outwardly she is, as she says, an unremarkable old woman. She has long concealed her history – and her feelings – from the casual observer. And she’s learned to ignore her own past, too.
But as she sits by Michael’s bed, she’s haunted by memories of events from almost forty years ago. She and Michael were recently married; their children, Eddie and Sarah, still young. Theirs was an uneventful life in a small village. But, stiflingly bored in her role as mother and wife, Marion fell for a married man, an affair that sparked a chain of events which re-sets all their lives.
Moving between the voices of Marion, her teenage daughter Sarah and her youngest son, Eddie, How It Was is a story of love, loss and betrayal. Through Marion and Sarah, Janet Ellis explores the tensions at the heart of mother-daughter relationships, the pressure women face to be the perfect wife and mother, and how life rarely turns out the way we imagine it will when we are young.
It just so happened that soon after I got tickets to see Janet Ellis at the book festival I was then lucky enough to get a copy through Netgalley, what surprised me the most though was that actually my appreciation for the book definitely improved after hearing the author speak about it.
I had only managed to get halfway through How It Was before I went to the event and had found it quite slow and difficult to follow at the beginning. I think mostly that is a quirk of the copy I was reading because each section merged into another and I did spend too much time trying to figure out if the narrator had switched and whose voice I was hearing. This did give me quite a jarring reading experience at times and even though I am imagining that this will not be the case in finished copies, it does obviously have an effect on my opinion.
What I found quite interesting was I did get a fresh perspective after the event and that the slower pace is a kind of a reflection of Marion’s reluctance to deal with these memories that are coming back to her. Death does tend to bring reflection and I suppose considering Marion is not the most likeable character, the fact that she actually is taking the time to be honest with herself did make me respect her more than I did at the start of the book.
There was also a discussion between Janet Ellis and the other author at the event Billy O’Callaghan about how you relate characters experiences to your own and that we may dislike a character because they are a reflection of the things you may dislike about yourself. I did find both Marion and Sarah a little unlikeable but with Sarah I do think that that is true, whilst at times she sounded a little older than a teenager, some of her actions are very similar to things I did at that age.
I think towards the second half of the book as we start to see the tension between the family and the consequences of the actions of each character is where this book really shines. The writing throughout the book is spectacular and atmospheric but in the later stages of the book the added emotion really makes every decision hit home, I was really torn between both smothering despair and surprising hope.
If you enjoy a slowly unfolded character-driven story, with fractured family dynamics and beautiful writing then you will definitely appreciate How It Was.