The West Country is an area of south west Britain running from Gloucestershire in the midlands, down to Dorset on the south coast and is made up, largely, of the peninsula that protrudes out into the Atlantic, culminating at the UK’s most southerly tip of Land’s End. I have been there on holidays a number of times over the years, most recently two years ago when myself and Georgina went to Ilfracombe in Devon (see the Lancelot review on this blog in June 2018). Two years before that, we spent a week in Colyton in East Devon. It was while there on that trip, that we also spent a lovely day exploring the ancient roman city of Exeter, which features significantly in this month’s first book review. The book is The Inconvenient Need To Belong by Paula Smedley and published by Silverwood Book (www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk) in April 2020.
Alfie Cooper is an elderly gentleman living in a care home in England. Every Saturday he sneaks out of the home, while the other residents are enjoying the visits with their families. Alfie doesn’t have any family, well none he talks of. His Saturday routine takes him to the park where he meets Fred, a teenager he’s struck up a friendship with and there, while feeding the ducks, he shares his life story. From leaving his parents’ home in Fulham as a young man in post war England, with dreams of making a life for himself as a carpenter and setting up a cabinet making business to his loves, losses and friends he made Exeter during the dark days. There, he had to learn a valuable lesson, due to his lack of social skills. Then his adventures on the travelling circus and meeting his American wife Evie. Eventually he will have to admit to a tragic of part of his life, one he hasn’t told anyone about, not even in the care home.
Fred isn’t the only person who he’ll have to cross this bridge with, as he’s just started corresponding with an online pen pal. Anne is a widow and single mum, living in the states. As well as that, Alfie’s solitary existence and Saturday disappearances have also come to the attention of Julia an Australian carer at the home. Soon she learns something about his past and starts digging a little deeper. What is Alfie’s big secret and will Julia’s digging bring closure or more upset?
Reading about elderly characters sometimes makes me conscious of, if not my own mortality, but what awaits me in my twilight years. Especially as I am due to leave my forties in three weeks’ time and as one friend put it a number of years ago, enter “Sniper Alley”. Considering I’m in good health, I’m hopefully fretting about nothing.
One book I read and reviewed previously, that did affect me negatively, was Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healy. Although I’ve read a few books centred around elderly characters and loved them, including Fiona MacFarlane’s, The Night Guest.
With this book I was so bowled over by Alfie and the other characters, that I could have read it in one sitting. I actually had it read in three days and might have romped through the enthralling two hundred and ninety pages in two days, the only thing tearing me away from it was my daily afternoon ‘Lockdown’ walk, while listening to my favourite podcast.
What endeared me to the book, was the story of Alfie’s first tentative steps into the big wide world and the pitfalls associated with love, lust and how easily the young and inexperienced in life can come a cropper. But, also Smedley weaves a very lovely and richly told story of another time, when things were, if not easier, but simpler and whilst we endure a pared back life in the current pandemic, there are similarities.
Also, it’s the way the author draws you in to Alfie’s present and previous lives and then shows you a metaphorical bridge, with the mid-section shrouded in a mist. Which is revealed very subtlety, that left this reader at times fearful of what might have happened, not really wanting to see it visited upon such a sweet and gentle soul.
Yes, if I’d had a granddad alive now, I’d hope it was someone like Alfie. As for the other characters, they’re fully rounded and very well depicted. They are also lost and struggling to find answers in their own worlds and with real and very believable existences. The whole story shows great promise from a debutant author.
This is English author Paula Smedley ‘s (@_paulasmedley) debut novel. She started writing at a young age, winning acclaim for poetry and short stories. An extensive traveller, Paula has encountered vigilantes in Nigeria, escaped post-tsunami radiation in Japan, partied in a favela in Rio de Janeiro and left her debit card in a cashpoint in Sri Lanka. She currently lives in London with her husband.
Overall, this is a beautiful tale of love, loss, and regret. But in amongst all that, the author has mixed fun and happiness and rounded it all off with some very well-timed twists. Overall this book makes an ideal book group selection as well as an excellent recommendation for just about anyone.
So, at the next opportunity pop into your local book shop or order a copy online and go feed the ducks with Alfie and Fred.
Reviewed by Adrian Murphy
This review is part of a Random Things blog tour, to see what the other reviewers thought, visit their blogs listed below. Then if you get a copy, comeback and tell us what you thought, we’d appreciate the feedback.