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Once Upon a Time in England by Helen Walsh

This book was totally gripping from the outset – the life experienced by the working class family within is truly grim; an unremitingly bleak existence, reinforced by a series of poor decisions and having to live with the consequences. Each time they pick themselves up, something else seems to happen to knock them down again. The novel covers big themes, mixed-race marriage, rape, drugs, drink, homosexuality, bigotry, it all happens to the Fitzgeralds, yet it is portrayed very realistically and you can’t help but feel for them.

Set in Warrington of the 1970s and 80s, it’s love at first sight for Robbie Fitzgerald, a red-headed club singer of Irish descent, and Susheela, a Malaysian trainee nurse, newly emigrated to make a life for herself in the land of plenty. They meet in the ER…

“Susheela had fallen in love with that man, and that nose. Each dent and bump told out their history. She’d been there, on duty, the night they wheeled him in, barely conscious, his nose splayed across his left cheekbone pumping blood into the stung slits of his eyes. … And she’d been there in the room later when his cast had peeled back to reveal his new face. She’d watched him confront the mirror and sensed his disappointment. … He seemed to shrink away from the dangerous edge his nose now lent his battle-scarred face, at odds with the tender and reticent soul underneath.”

Robbie and Susheela marry and have a son Vincent, Vinnie; five years later Susheela is pregnant again. But on the night he gets his big break and gets spotted by an agent at the Club, he’s late home, and the event happens that will colour their lives for ever. Susheela gets raped by a gang of racist thugs who break into their home.

All this has happened before page 40, leaving the rest of the novel to chart tell the family’s story through the next decades. Robbie leaves Sheila, as she becomes known, with the kids, sensitive Vinnie and live-wire Ellie. With a mostly absent father and a mother who doesn’t really understand the teen-scene, Vinnie and Ellie soon get into drugs and clubbing, and Vinnie is starting to explore the fringes of the gay scene. You can feel it will end in inevitable tragedy.

This is strong stuff and the author spares no punches, she tells it like it is. Although the novel is set in a particularly poor industrial area of England, you feel that similar stories have happened up and down the country to unfortunate families. Walsh was born in Warrington and got into ecstasy and clubbing before running away to Barcelona at sixteen, so you know she is writing from experience. I read an interesting interview and article about her here. This gritty novel, her second, was absolutely gripping from the start, and I would certainly read more by this exciting young author. (Book supplied by Librarything Early Reviewers programme).

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