Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Harper Perennial, literary fiction, Publisher, Salley Vickers, Setting

‘Instances of the Number Three’ by Salley Vickers


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 307 pages; 2001.

Your 62-year-old husband dies in a car accident and then, not long afterwards, you make friends with his mistress. You also meet a young homeless friend of his for the first time and, taking pity on him, allow him to move into your home as a lodger-cum-housemaid. Meanwhile, you buy a house in the countryside, where you spend your weekends rediscovering life as a single woman while trying to come to terms with your loss. But when your husband reappears as a ghost, you begin to wonder if you might have lost the plot entirely…

This is a snapshot summary of Salley Vickers’ delightful Instances of the Number 3, which is set in West London (Fulham and Turnham Green, to be precise) and Shropshire.

Bridget Hansome is a successful businesswoman often too caught up in tracking down antiques on the Continent to bother dealing with her husband’s roving eye. When he dies, the full extent of his infidelity becomes clear when his mistress, Frances, contacts her. But instead of anger and recriminations, Bridget decides to get to know  the woman her husband also loved.

At the same time, a beautiful but mysterious Irianian boy, Zahin, who claims to have known her husband enters her life — and her home — and together the three form an unusual trio of mourners confronting their loss but finding new beginnings in the process.

What I loved most about this novel is Vickers uncanny ability to tap into human emotions and to examine what makes people do the (sometimes strange) things they do. Her characters are well-rounded and believable. And the plot, which unfolds gently, mirrors, in many ways, the plot of Hamlet (Vickers is a Shakespearean scholar), right down to the appearance of a ghost.

But while I absolutely adored her debut novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, I did not feel that Instances of the Number 3 was imbued with the same level of genteel magic. Sure it’s witty and beguiling, but I wasn’t quite convinced by the storyline and guessed Zahine’s secret long before it was revealed.

And while I know I should let things wash over me and just enjoy the superb quality of the writing, sometimes I found the pacing too slow and wanted to hurry things along.

Reading about an older age group — most of the characters are in their 50s and 60s — was also a new experience for me, one that felt slightly strange, as if I’d put on the wrong size of shoes by accident. I’m not saying this was a bad thing, just an unfamiliar one.

Ultimately, Instances of the Number 3 is an uplifting tale about self-discovery — and second chances — in the face of unexpected loss. It’s also a novel about the shifting nature of relationships and what it means to love and be loved. It’s a happy, elegant read, classy and thought-provoking and perfect fare for the depths of winter.

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