Published: 23rd July 2016
Started reading: April 22
Finished reading: May 6
Trigger warnings: Domestic abuse
This was a buddy read with my friend Gem, our second buddy read of 2019 and our fifth overall. I would like to say thank you for Gem for her wonderful insight and for helping to make our discussions so enjoyable.
On the night Bernadette finally has the courage to tell her domineering husband that she’s leaving, he doesn’t come home. Neither does Conor, the little boy she’s befriended for the past five years.
Also missing is his lifebook, the only thing that holds the answers. With the help of Conor’s foster mum, Bernadette must face her own past, her husband’s secrets and a future she never dared imagine in order to find them all.
One of my absolute reading highlights of 2018 was Louise Beech’s debut novel, How To Be Brave. I was so taken by the profoundly moving story and the beautiful writing style that each of her other books became a must-read, so my expectations were very high as I started on this one.
The character-driven narrative and the steady increase in pace both helped to draw me in, giving the story a sense of promise that never wavered, and it turned out to be a very decent read. However, there were a couple of disappointing flaws which meant the book has less of an impact on me that I was hoping. I shall come to them later.
The novel revolves around two characters. Conor is a 10-year-old boy who has spent his entire, occasionally troubled life in foster care, and does not know his father. He shares a close friendship with Bernadette, an isolated housewife who is about to leave her controlling husband, Richard. As the story progresses, there are life-changing revelations for both of them as they go on a journey of self-discovery.
It is told from three separate points of view. Bernadette’s storyline is in third person, and was the one I connected with the most. I found her a very interesting and likeable character, and her life and perspective is written with a degree of subtlety which I really loved. Meanwhile, Richard was exceptionally complex, and I was fascinated by the way his character was explored.
Conor is written in the first person, and I was taken by his story. There were definitely moments where I empathised with him. The book is also told through extracts from Conor’s Life Book, which is a record of all of his milestones and assessments from social workers, as well as messages from other people including carers and his birth mother. I felt this gave the storytelling more effectiveness, and added extra depth to the book.
Time now to address the elephant in the room: the plot. Sadly this is where most of the flaws lie, and was my main reason for not giving a higher rating. I understand that this book was very personal and poignant, but the plot was lacking in several areas. It felt a bit too simplistic, easy to predict, and full of coincidences.
There were moments where both me and Gem expected the story to take an interesting new direction, but that never really happened. The characters were good, and the ending was nice, but we were both hoping for a little more nuance.
That is a shame because the writing is terrific. I love the way Louise Beech weaves sentences together with poetic elegance and meaning. The multiple POVs were engaging and well executed, if only the plot contained a few more unexpected surprises to compliment them…
Overall, I did enjoy reading this book and following both Bernadette and Conor along the way, but the plot and the path it takes was a bit of a letdown for me. All the same, the writing is great and the characters add plenty of emotional weight to the story, so there are a number of things to like.
A very well written and character driven book with poignant themes. The plot was not quite there, but it is a hugely engaging story nonetheless.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5