Published: 1st April 2018
Genre: General Fiction
‘Like a cold spider, the memory stirred in my head and spun an icy web about my brain. Someone else crawled in. I remembered’
Thirty-one-year-old Catherine Hope has a great memory. But she can’t remember everything. She can’t remember her ninth year. She can’t remember when her insomnia started. And she can’t remember why everyone stopped calling her Catherine-Maria.
With a promiscuous past, and licking her wounds after a painful breakup, Catherine wonders why she resists anything approaching real love. But when she loses her home to the devastating deluge of 2007 and volunteers at Flood Crisis, a devastating memory emerges … and changes everything.
This book made for quite the contrast of feelings and emotions. Underneath the layers of humour and playful frivolity that rest upon its surface lies an incredibly dark and emotional core that leaves a deep lasting impression, through a thought-provoking exploration of a most harrowing topic along with a sensitive portrayal of complex family relationships.
It is as unique and innovative as one would expect from Louise Beech while the writing is suitably excellent, balancing out the light and the shade in an effortless manner. That said, there were also times where the story did not quite manage to hit all the right notes, such as certain characterisations and a major plot twist which seemed far-fetched in the extreme.
Catherine is a woman in her early thirties who lost her house in the floods that devastated parts of England during the summer of 2007, and is now living with her promiscuous friend Fern, a newspaper columnist who recently split from her husband. Feeling a need to help others, Catherine gets a job at a helpline that has primarily been set up to support fellow flood victims.
She develops a close bond with a couple of regular callers including a man who recently suffered a stroke and a woman who fears she might be in an unhealthy relationship, although she is not able to ask specific questions or offer advice. On top of all that, she cannot even use her own name, instead being known as Katrina to callers and colleagues alike.
But something is troubling Catherine. When asked to share something that happened in her life at the age of nine, her memory is blank. She hardly receives any affection from her adoptive mother and occasionally displays erratic behaviour that she is at a loss to explain, but then there is an image in her head that grows ever more prominent until the truth finally arrives.
To begin with it all seems relatively harmless, with an intriguing concept and plenty of light-hearted moments, but the hints towards something darker are always there during the chapters that focus more on Catherine’s home life. There is a kind of melancholy that permeates through the book which is complimented well by the emphasis on Catherine’s name and the technique of using the floods as a central plot device.
Many of the more meaningful parts of the story take place in the scenes between Catherine and her family, who spend a lot of time together yet there is a distance in the way they communicate. When the reality of her life finally hits her, it is just as abrupt for the reader as we are plunged into extremely hard-hitting territory with little warning, but in a way that makes it more impactful.
The twist is saved for later on and while I saw it coming just before the revelation, it felt like far too much of a coincidence. It serves a purpose in the context of the story and certainly sets up the final few chapters to be dramatic and powerful, but it is also there for the sake of convenience. Louise Beech is known for her coincidental twists, only this one just did not have the same amount of literary merit.
Everything is written in the first person from Catherine’s perspective, and her narration is what gives the book a hefty chunk of its originality. It is apparent early on that she can be sarcastic and irritable, but equally vulnerable when she is alone with her thoughts and confused by seemingly random triggers. Ultimately she wants love and acknowledgement, and the writing captures that beautifully.
Her adoptive mother Jean is a much different personality and her many principles and mannerisms made her a memorable character. Fern is perhaps not especially likeable but still raises a lot of laughs, Mary was kindness personified by comparison, and although she only appears in flashbacks Catherine’s late grandmother really leaves her mark.
Sadly the same cannot be said about the other volunteers at the helpline. Even Christopher, a very significant character in terms of the plot, is lacking in development and comes across as a little bit two-dimensional. We discover that he is a caring person who previously suffered a personal heartbreak, but that is just about it.
Rather than the poetic beauty that we usually see in Louise Beech’s writing, here she creates more of an atmosphere that ideally reflects the mood of the story and the dark subject matter, and in doing so it stirs a reaction from the reader in a different way. Conversely, not all of the humour is on point but in other places it is absolutely superb and made me laugh out loud.
Overall, there are a multitude of impressive ideas to be found here, mostly in regards to Catherine’s journey and the various themes that come into play. It does not get everything right and there are flaws within the plot, but the basis of the story is intelligently woven into something that emerges as undoubtedly powerful and arresting.
To quote the content warnings at the beginning of the post would probably have been a bit of a spoiler, but there are some very important and sensitive topics discussed in the book which you might want to be mindful of before picking this one up.
There are raw depictions of child sexual abuse and the impact it has on the victim, which forms a significant part of the plot. Elsewhere, there are strong sexual references and a sub-plot that involves a character suffering from cancer.
A hard-hitting book which succeeds in terms of its themes and the impact it generates, although other areas of the plot are just a little bit lacking.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐