An intimate and captivating portrait of four people struggling with the concrete confines of city life by first-time novelist Melissa Harrison.
Eight-year-old TC skips school to explore the city’s overgrown, forgotten corners. Sophia, seventy-eight, watches with concern as he slips past her window, through the little park she loves. She’s writing to her granddaughter, Daisy, whose privileged upbringing means she exists in a different world from TC – though the two children live less than a mile apart.
Jozef spends his days doing house clearances, his nights working in a takeaway. He can’t forget the farm he left behind in Poland, its woods and fields still a part of him, although he is a thousand miles away. When he meets TC he finds a kindred spirit: both lonely, both looking for something, both lost.
The writing is beautiful. The description of nature is beautiful. It is wonderful to think of nature going on in the city, in the run-down areas as well as the great parks. And it is heartening to think that there are people there who appreciate it and want to work alongside it.
In this book Melissa Harrison takes us through a year in the life of a small park and woodland area within the city, surrounded by busy streets, fast-food shops and past-their-best flats. Each chapter is headed by a named day in country lore – St Bartholomew’s Day, Shrovetide, Oak Day, … – and the changing of the seasons, the growth of the plants and trees described. The city is London, but it could be any city. The writing is evocative and emotive.
The people living around the park area are largely unaware of what is going on with the plant and wildlife. That is, except for a few. There is Sophia, seventy-eight and widowed, who brought up two children in the flat she still lives in. Her son lives in Canada. Her daughter has gone up in the world and has a difficult relationship with her mother. She lives not far away, but in a more affluent neighbourhood, where she keeps a tidy house and her gardener keeps a tidy garden. Her eight-year-old daughter Daisy is spoiled and over-protected, but she loves her grandmother and eagerly learns about the trees and plants her granny has watched over since she moved into the flat as a newly-wed. Sophia documents the passing of the seasons in a nature notebook. One of my favourite bits in the book is when she digs up regimental lines of bulbs in the park in the middle of the night and replants them in a haphazard and more pleasing pattern.
TC is a nine-year-old boy whose most treasured possession is a book on tracking wild animals – a birthday present from his father, which he rescued from the bin his mother had dumped it in after kicking her husband out of the home. She says it is because he hit her, but TC is unaware of this and mourns the loss of the father he idolises and puts on a pedestal. His mother neglects him to the extent that he goes hungry and regularly misses school with anyone barely noticing. I suspect TC’s adoration of his father is misplaced, and doubt whether his mother really was abused. Her boyfriend Jamal is a good man but powerless to help TC, who would have been better off if he had been able to trust the man.
Jozef is a forty-year-old Polish man who works in a takeaway as he dreams of the farm he loved and lost in Poland when the EC machine chewed him up and spat him out. His only real friend is a dog called Znajda. I loved Znajda (and there’s a reason I usually avoid books with dog characters in them: there’s only one way “literary fiction” can go with that ‒ and it does, nearly always).
These three people’s lives are quite separate but they come together as their paths cross around the park. Daisy occasionally plays with TC and their conversation brings home starkly their different upbringings and different family lives, and different destinies – each has no concept of how the other lives. Jozef and Znajda befriend TC and he begins to rely on the man for food. The relationship that develops between them is touchingly lovely, and sad, with Jozef genuinely caring for the boy but concerned about how the odd friendship will look to others in these days of suspicion and mistrust.
I loved the characters. Their lives are desperately sad, and yet we see brightness for all of them, only for it to be dashed and torn from them and us in a way that leaves no room for further hope or happy endings. Yet still the seasons will pass and the little park will come to life and sleep again before rejuvenating.
For me, one of the most interesting characters is Linda, Daisy’s mother. She flits in and out of the story without having a huge part in it, yet despite her good job, happy marriage and ordered life, she too is missing something and there is a fleeting hint of how she can, but fails to, change that.
This book needs to be read slowly, so that you can savour each sentence and picture every tiny detail.
If this is ever made into a film, I won’t watch it. Having this story wrench my heart out once is enough. There is only so much realism this reader can take without succumbing to despair at the harshness of life. I might be tempted to gird my loins and listen to the audio book.
But I will definitely read Melissa’s next book.
Editorial Input & Design
What can I say? It’s perfect. There are changes I would like to suggest, but they would be to satisfy my rather shallow reading so that I wasn’t so emotionally wrecked by the story.
Cover: It’s beautiful. I love the image. I love the texture.
Internal design: I read the paperback. It’s flawlessly produced.
Book Clubs & Reviews
Most definitely a book club choice. There is so much to discuss from this book – nature, the importance of wild areas in cities, loneliness, domestic abuse, animal abuse, racism, unusual friendships, children and the different ways they are brought up, the imagery and metaphors, country life, urban life, farming, parents and grandparents. The book club I belong to read it: it is one of the few books we have all loved and we were all moved by the characters and situations.
What others are saying: Amazon UK readers give it 4.4 stars (35 reviewers; one of them says it has an uplifting ending – I have to say, that part completely passed me by!); Amazon US readers give it 3.7 stars (5 reviewers); Goodreads readers give it 3.83 stars (143 ratings – a very mixed bag of reviews).
Buy & Author
hive.co.uk (paperback £6.99; ePub £7.99)
Kenny’s, Ireland (paperback €12.80, free shipping)
Amazon (Kindle £5.99/$9.06; paperback £7.99/$10.32; hardback £14.99/$20.83; audible download £13.73/$18.11)
Follow the author:
Links of interest:
Writers and Artists Interview with the author
The Big Issue Interview with the author
Author’s playlist for Clay, and here is the playlist on Soundcloud
Coleridge Lectures 2015, Bristol