A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In 1968, “The year Paris took to the streets. The year of the Tet offensive. The year Martin Luther King lost his life for a dream,” Eleanor Maud Portman is born. Elly immediately grasps you by the hand and introduces you to the motley crew of her family. She idolises her older brother Joe, who is determined that Elly will have a friend and gives her a rabbit, which she names God.
The book is peopled by delicious characters – Shirley Bassey impersonator, Ginger; Arthur, who is certain of when he will die and how. Both are guests at the Portman guesthouse, who become members of the family. Then there is Jenny Penny, Elly’s next-door neighbour and best friend, who exudes magic and warmth.
But though the first part of this book shines with innocence, darkness impinges on the nostalgically blurred edges of this childhood. The Portman family are touched by a number of small tragedies that leave their mark on the individual members of the family. But they continue to glow, to leap off the page.
Told in two parts, the first half is a delicious evocation of an awkward childhood. Winman brings to life the world through a child’s eyes in a way that makes you dewy-eyed about your own childhood. The second part takes place when everyone has all grown up and Winman bravely uses 9/11 as a turning point of the book, creating a moment of frozen horror that exists both inside and outside of the book.
This is a story of things lost and found. How the ties forged in childhood – brothers with sisters, with best friends and first loves – can reach out and grip you in adulthood. A book about the surprising importance of memory – not just your own memories, but your place in other people’s. It is a startling accomplished debut novel that defies a neat breakdown. Winman’s grasp of character is firm and assured, her voice is strong and lyrical:
“The sound of the trunk fracturing and splintering and falling to earth was the sound his heart would have made, could it speak.”
As the blurb claims “More than anything, it’s a book about love in all its forms.” I for one can’t wait to see what Winman tackles next.
Headline Review, 2011. ISBN-10:0755379306. 352pp.