Published: 15th July 2015
Started reading: November 3
Finished reading: November 14
Trigger warnings: Diabetes story line, suicide
I read this book as a buddy read with my friend Gem @ Glimpsing Gembles, and I have to thank her for our lengthy, insightful discussions. We have read three books together now and I have enjoyed every moment.
When Natalie’s nine-year-old daughter Rose suddenly collapses and is then diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness, their lives are completely changed.
As they both come to terms with their frightening new circumstances, they begin dreaming about and seeing a man in a brown suit who feels hauntingly familiar, a man who has something for them.
Through the magic of storytelling, Natalie and Rose are transported to the Atlantic Ocean in 1943, to a lifeboat, where an ancestor survived for fifty days before being rescued.
Wow! Reading this book made for quite the emotional literary journey. It is supremely powerful, fantastical, and above all, beautifully written. When you add the fact that it is strongly based on the author’s life and family history, it all amounts to a genuinely compelling and profound piece of storytelling.
The book contains two separate story lines, both extremely effective and impactful. They are linked together not only by the fierce power of storytelling that emanates throughout, but also by a number of poignant themes, and a sprinkling of magical realism.
The magical realism aspect is evident early on, and as the story moves along, it appears in several different forms. It is like an external force driving the characters towards their respective fates, establishing a mutual connection some sixty years apart.
I was completely immersed in both story lines. I liked how the issue of diabetes was explored in such detail, and although some of it did get a bit repetitive at times, the characters were always interesting enough to keep me going.
The story of the men on the lifeboat was genuinely moving and brilliantly told, even more so when I remind myself that this was based on things that actually happened. When I reached the end of the book I felt quite overwhelmed, just consumed by the intensity of it all. It is a story that will make me never forget reading this book.
The characters are multi-layered and wonderfully realised. Natalie is the narrator, and the way she has to immediately come to terms with Rose’s diagnosis comes across well. Rose is complex and occasionally unpredictable, not to mention very precocious. On the lifeboat, Colin and Ken were endearing and as the reader it felt like I was being guided through the story with them, and although it would have been good to find out more about some of the other men, there is almost nothing that could be changed to make it better.
I simply must talk about the writing style. It is very poetic, very thought-provoking, and I could tell that a great deal of care went into every word. The book is full of lyrical lines and arresting sentiments, with more than its fair share of inventive similes and metaphors (mostly related to the sea). It was sometimes quite witty, and I liked the little extra touches in there, such as Natalie correcting Rose’s grammar, and each character’s figures of speech. The only minor thing I can criticise is that there are too many rhetorical questions.
The structure of the book is quite interesting because for a long time, the chapters alternate between the two story lines, but later on, they kind of overlap as the novel really gathers pace. During the middle third of the book the pace was just threatening to lag, but then it suddenly accelerates and is entirely captivating right up to the end and as a result, my rating just kept going up.
Overall, this was a memorable read that becomes more and more powerful the closer you get to the end. We have two superbly told stories in one, carved together by a very talented author for whom they carry special significance. The pace may be slow at times in the middle part of the book, but otherwise this is a standout work of literature with no shortage of things to capture your attention.
Louise Beech loved writing from a very young age, and though How To Be Brave was her debut novel, she had previously published short stories. A former columnist for the Hull Daily Mail, she has since released three more novels, most recently The Lion Tamer Who Lost in 2018.
She lives near Hull with her husband and children.
I know I have used the word a lot, but this is a very powerful book. Highly recommended.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐