Book Balm recommendation: read when you need reminding that every person you meet has their own story.
Reading almost like a novella in flash and expanding outwards from her Costa Award shortlisted tale Red, Amanda Huggins’ latest creation is a tensely told yet heart-affirming work. The focus is fifteen-year-old Mollie, seemingly trapped in a nightmarish situation until she finds the courage to escape with stray dog Hal.
The friendship between Mollie and Hal is a steel thread through the story, offering solace and strength in the face of disappointments, betrayals and the occasional kindness. This is a journey full of perils and adventure, with happy as well as sour memories trailing behind and the hope of a safe return to what was once home ahead.
When Mollie’s mum Ellie meets Sherman Rook, it’s clear almost at once that he’s no good. “Something in his eyes glittered hard and bright as he appraised her cloud of unruly blonde hair, the jut of her determined chin and her long tanned legs.”
Before the chapter’s end Ellie and Mollie are moving to live with Sherman far from everyone they know. The sense of danger is palpable.
It contrasts sharply with the coastal life Mollie loves, close to her brother Angel and father. The close yet roaming third-person narrative allows chapters to read like flash fictions, with some focused on Ellie and opening up insights into her behaviour, while others share aspects of people Mollie meets only briefly, providing an exterior view of Mollie that helps us see both her vulnerability and gumption.
It all contributes to a richly layered whole.
In the chapter titled ‘pretty’, Huggin’s poetic writing conjures the anticipation of being a teenager hungry for romance: “She (Ellie) was giddy to know it all (…) to kiss the boys in the dunes, soft sand falling away beneath them, warm wind whispering through the seagrass at dusk.”
It’s this masterful lyricism that keeps even the darkest scenes from growing too painful, while easing us into a place where we care, deeply, for her characters. By delving into Mollie’s parents’ past, we’re reminded that they too have fears, desires, f and dreams that make them fallible.
For Ellie, loneliness is the dread that tempers her decision-making and puts both herself and her daughter in harm’s way. Yet we also gain glimpses of her spirit and capacity for joy, in part through the songs threading through the story.
Mollie’s love of music, bestowed on her by both parents, gives us clues to the people who offer her lifts as she travels the 1,000 miles home. The weirdest of these has stuck in my head: the couple who call each other “Father” and “Mother”, and forbid conversation in their car, to the extent that when Mollie accidentally sings along to an old favourite song she risks being booted out into the rain. It’s a brilliantly peculiar vignette, neatly encapsulating the surreal encounters that can happen when you’re unrooted for a time.
Amanda Huggins’ writing is full of passion for her characters. She imbues instances of terror with her protagonists’ pasts and futures, so that no moment sits isolated on that page but is instead a culmination of all that has been and all that will come, just like life.
This book was given to me in exchange for a fair review.
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