It is always a happy day when you can add to your list of favourite authors – someone whose books you look out for and who you can generally rely on to provide you with whatever it is you get from that writer (laughter, tears, esoteric knowledge or combinations of all the above). Even though this is only Ruth Hogan’s second book I’m fairly certain she has made my own, personal list. She has even made the list of authors who make you feel as if you are reading the words of a friend – who you feel really understands you and your life*. Bliss.
Masha has been many things in her life: a free spirit, a lover, and a mother. But right now she is none of those things – since her beloved little boy disappeared thirteen years ago she has become obsessed with drowning. Although she decided that she wanted to go on living she spent years visiting her local lido practicing how long she can hold her breath underwater – reliving her son’s final moments. She can’t speak to her friends or parents about how she feels, she can barely admit it to herself, she is just drifting. The only things that keep her afloat are her good friends Edward and Epiphany and her wolfhound Haizum but she only really begins to live again through her friendship with two older women – the magnificent Kitty Muriel, a force of nature in leopard-print and heels, and Sally who roams the local park, feeding crows and, sometimes, mistaking profanities for everyday conversation. In a separate strand of the novel another woman, single mum Alice, loves her fourteen year old son Mattie with a passion which threatens to smother him until her own health begins to fail. At this point the two stories start to move closer together and secrets are, finally, revealed.
The plot here is actually secondary to the wonderful, wonderful characters in some ways. There is a story (and it all hangs together perfectly well) but the really important thing is who is being affected by the events described. Masha is, at the beginning of the book, almost totally defined by her sorrow but, as she begins to rebuild her life, we see the vibrant woman she should have been all along. Alice is, initially, a deeply irritating character – giving her teenage son no freedom or trust, a total ditherer – but as we learn more of her life her actions become much more understandable. Kitty Muriel is never anything but the kind of woman I want to be when I’m in my 70s but Sally Red Shoes (Masha’s name for her) is my favourite character in the book. We find out about her earlier life – which seems it should have left her colourless and withdrawn but just plain hasn’t – but only in hindsight. Throughout the novel itself we just get to see her in her unrestrained, crow-feeding, tourettish glory: she teaches us, as she does Masha, that we don’t have to be the sum of the awful things life throws at us. If we are lucky we can learn how to be the best ‘us’ possible even when it seems too difficult.
*Oddly, I hadn’t read Hogan’s biography on Goodreads when I read her first book. It seems we share a few experiences in life including our love of reading, sweetness preferences regarding tea and brushes with cancer. I think she really, really does understand my life 🙂