When you finish a book and declare 'That is the best book I have ever read!'. Objectively, you know that isn't true, and, anyway, who wants to rank books in strict order of preference? One's reading experience can be altered by subjective factors and one goes through phases or life stages. Nevertheless, that warm glow of having experienced a truly worthwhile book is one of the special feelings of solitary pursuits.
I think Lisa Jewell comes under the umbrella of chick-lit, as long as you're prepared to accept this as a big umbrella. I read a lot of chick lit in my 20s and into my 30s, and it's a broad category. I didn't like the 'shallow woman lives a consumerist lifestyle and falls in love with a seemingly perfect man and they encounter no conflict' style, but I found many books that explored issues and problems, conflicts and tragedies, in a sensitive and human way. They helped me understand the world better.
The Truth about Melody Browne fits into that latter category. You may have gathered by now that I am not well educated about literature, novels and writing. But I am fairly well and widely read over many years and I have accumulated half a lifetime of experience. Reading a book like this, I'm glad I don't understand the rules of English Literature because I would hate to have to read this and tick off a list of attributes, or criticise it for not displaying the full panoply of literary techniques.
Instead, we get a raw and open account of the life of one woman. Raw but never dark. Light, sometimes almost breezy in its tone. The synopsis in the blurb is quite long, because it's not a straightforward story:
When she was nine years old, Melody Browne's house burned down, taking every toy, every photograph, every item of clothing and old Christmas card with it. But not only did the fire destroy all her possessions, it took with it all her memories - Melody Browne can remember nothing before her ninth birthday.
Now in her early thirties, Melody lives in a council flat in the middle of London with her seventeen-year-old son. She hasn't seen her parents since she left home at fifteen, but Melody doesn't mind, she's better off on her own. She's made a good life for herself and her son and she likes it that way.
Until one night something extraordinary happens. Whilst attending a hypnotist show with her first date in years she faints - and when she comes round she starts to remember. At first her memories mean nothing to her but then slowly, day by day, she begins to piece together the real story of her childhood.
Her journey takes her to the seaside town of Broadstairs, to oddly familiar houses in London backstreets and to meetings with strangers who love her like their own. But with every mystery she solves another one materialises, with every question she answers another appears. And Melody begins to wonder if she'll ever know the truth about her past.
There are two time-frames interweaved in the book. One is Melody in the 'now', stating what she is doing now and what she remembers from her childhood. All of 'now' is told from Melody's Point of View - although it's not 3rd person, nothing happens which she doesn't see, and the narrative includes her thoughts, but no one else's.
The other part is in the past and is more detached. Similarly third person narrative, similarly we have access to Melody's thoughts, and no one else's, but it seems detached. Lisa narrates from the point of view of a young child - approximately between the ages of 4 and 9. It's a difficult trick to pull off. She includes some of Melody's thoughts, but doesn't convert them into complex concepts, because small children don't do that, but they do think, and try to piece together and understand what they experience. Melody also sees things and people, and does things, and things happen around her. Lisa uses some quite complex vocabulary here, not the vocabulary you would expect of a 6 year old. It works because it describes an objective reality that is in public. Just because the 6 year old doesn't know the word for an object doesn't mean she doesn't see it. It would be twee to write it in the language of 6 year olds, and Lisa doesn't.
A large cast of characters appears in both 'now' and 'then', but you don't lose track of who they are. We only ever see them through the eyes of Melody, so they are limited in dimension, but many of them are real - they walk off the page, more than just a collection of words. None is shallow, and although one can see 'typical' characteristics and behaviours, they're not stereotypes.
I like the places - North Lambeth, which I know fairly well; Covent Garden, with which I'm as familiar as most people; and Broadstairs, where I visited a couple of times last year (the famous Morelli's ice cream parlour is a delightful feature of the book). There is a decent sense of those places, although the book isn't driven or dominated by place.
The blurb tells us that Melody suffered traumatic amnesia and the book is about her starting to remember life before the fire. It's fair to say that her childhood was far from ideal. It would have been easy for the writer to create a history of abuse but that doesn't happen. Instead, it's a far more nuanced tale of how life gets in the way, of how children become the victims of random events and other people's problems.
What makes this book great is that it is a tale of love. 'Strangers who love her like their own'. It sometimes risks falling into sentimentality but doesn't. It's a rich evocation power of humanity to love and give. I cried at times, and some readers will find that raw emotion difficult to handle, often for very good and personal reasons. I see it as cathartic and cleansing.
The first Lisa Jewell book I read was Before I Met You. This came up as a Kindle Deal. I already had the author on my 'To Be Read', so I bought it.
When I came round to reading it, I saw the 'chick lit' tag, and groaned. Unfairly, because it was utterly compelling. A Guernsey woman travels to London to find out more about the young life of her recently deceased step-grandmother, and finds a fascinating tale of the Roaring Twenties.
I will simply say here that it is a very good book indeed, with two timelines that lay out a rich and plausible, if star-studded,world. More importantly, it proved to be an epiphany for me, and I highlighted the following passage:
You know, if I could go back to any period in time,’ said Alexandra, ‘it would be then. The twenties. Bright Young People, jazz. Everything new and fresh and semi-illicit. I mean, the fact that your grandmother was socialising with black men – it would have been unthinkable before, and for a long time after, too – but the twenties were this little window of optimism and broad-mindedness. And the clothes, sweetie,’
I could provide you with heaps of evidence, stretching back decades to show how much I like the Twenties and the Thirties. But this book lit the blue touch paper. I have always felt more than slightly guilty about romanticising this period, because so much awfulness happened. The aftermath of the Great War, the Depression and the rise of Fascism. The Bright Young Things were an elite and privileged tiny section of society. but yet, so much social progress did happen, and this period produced innovative and great works of art - the Golden Age not only of Detective Fiction but accessible thoughtful fiction, Railway Poster Art, Metroland, Art Deco buildings, and magnificent cars - but they make me feel guilty, as if I'm celebrating Nazism. But this book gave me permission to embrace the period, to learn more about the awful events and trends, and to celebrate the positive aspects, understanding the contradictions and ambiguities.
I will definitely read more from Lisa Jewell and I now think of her as one of my favourite authors.