“A detective story with no detective” says the tagline on this book, and it’s a pretty good description. Set in Edinburgh in 2011, Margaret is a middle aged woman whose life has imploded in London, so she flees to her mothers in Scotland. It’s one of the coldest Winters on record, and there are a high number of deaths of the indigent and elderly, including one who has no identifying details, only known as Mrs Walker. Margaret takes on work for the Office For Lost People, trying to follow what clues she can to see if Mrs Walker has any family. But unbeknownst to Margaret, Mrs Walker is connected to her own mother’s past.
The book takes us from modern Edinburgh and Margarets search, her relationship with her crochety mother Barbara, to the past in a house in London where a girl called Clementine sets of a chain of tragic events that tears her family apart forever. The book keeps you guessing as to who Mrs Walker might be, which figure from this life in London.
Probably one of the reasons I liked this book so much is because it’s got a lot in common with Gothic fiction. It’s got loads of twists and turns, a family saga, a crumbling house and dark family secrets, a preoccupation with death, madness and murder. Sometimes it reminded me of Virginia Andrews, actually, though it’s a lot less cheesey and pulpy. And I also was reminded of Dickens, perhaps Bleak House the most. The book has a sinister lawyer, a midwife called Mrs Penny who reminded me of Mrs Joe Gargery, a stolen inheritance, abandoned children being recruited for illegal dirty work, fallen women and poverty.
The overall tone of the book is dark and depressing, though reading it is not a depressing experience at all. There is cold, snow, slush, cobblestones and rain, stolen coats and older people wearing newspaper under their clothes to stay warm. The cold keeps them preserved as they die alone in their crumbling flats, ice frosting up inside the windows. Margaret steals, her mother isn’t happy to see her and they both seem to be alcoholics. None of the women seem to have healthy relationships, either with their love interests or with their sisters or parents. Even the culture of Ediburgh seems cold, with it’s judgement, emotional restraint and sometimes passive aggressive attitudes.
And of course, the lives of the Walker family, with the threads of murder, madness, abuse and abandonment is especially dark and tragic. The sisters of this family seem disunited, and unfriendly to each other in many ways, forging their own path and willing to steal from and use each other, but they are not unsympathic for all that. They’re actually very interesting and seem to be just using the ways of survival that they’ve been taught.
I really enjoyed this book. I liked the way it unwound it’s narrative and general dark tone and atmosphere. The mystery aspect is so well handled and keeps you guessing, and though the characters were often unlikable, they were always real and fascinating. There were so many sad endings in this book, but they all felt like things you’ve read in the news, grounded in the real, and somehow, the overall tone is never mawkish or maudlin. It’s a real page turner. I do wonder if the author is going to write more about Margaret. EIther way, she’s an author to look out for and this book is great.
Read It If: you like mysteries, family sagas or gothic fiction. It’s really well written and keeps you up well after bedtime, turning pages, wanting to know what happens next.
Thank you PGC Books for the copy of this book for review.
All opinions are my own, honest thoughts.
The Other Mrs Walker is out now.