Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 360 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
It’s difficult to review Once Upon a Time in England — Helen Walsh’s second novel — without giving away any of the plot. The beauty of reading it is letting the tale wash over you; I came to it “blind” and did not know what to expect, and I rather suspect this lack of knowledge about the storyline helped me to enjoy it hugely. For that reason, please excuse the scant detail I will provide here.
Essentially, the story is a family drama. It spans two decades and is set in England’s industrial North — Warrington, Cheshire, to be precise.
Robbie Fitzgerald is a young red-headed factory worker who has his sights set on a career as a cabaret-singer-come-pop star. But just when his first lucky break arrives — a music producer discovers him and promises all kinds of work, including a possible tour with Shirley Bassey — things go pear-shaped. There’s been a break-in at his house, and his wife, a pretty immigrant nurse from Kuala Lumpur, home alone with their young son, Vincent, has been man-handled by the balaclava-wearing intruder. The shock precipitates her into an early labour with their second child, a girl, Ellie.
This single evening sets the scene for the rest of Robbie and Susheela’s lives together, a kind of desperate struggle to make do with their lot, without ever really striving to break out of their cycle of domestic drudgery. Their initial fairytale romance becomes tarnished, first, by the local community’s inability to accept their mixed marriage, and second, by Susheela’s own creeping doubts that she should perhaps set Robbie free and start afresh. Her gradual slide into depression and her constant feelings of cultural dislocation only confuses her husband further.
What hurt most was the gradual grinding down of any magic in their lives until what remained was drudgery, duty and work, that killing routine of early start, long days at the conveyor belt and deadly nothingness at home. He felt for her, he wanted to make it go away. But she was doing it to herself — the grudging, laboured way she toiled through motherhood, seldom smiling, rarely even seeing her children. Truly she was a shadow of the girl he’d fallen for.
The novel is divided into three parts — 1975, 1981 and 1989 — all pivotal points in the family’s timeline. It is so well written that you begin to feel as if you are living alongside Robbie, Shusheela, Vincent and Ellie, as they stumble their way through their own small but complicated lives. Each character is believable and painfully human, right down to their individual inability to rise above their personal circumstances.
This is a book that deals with big themes — racism, poverty, drugs, crime, peer pressure, to name but a few — but in a very human way. It never feels cliched and is never manipulative. It is, however, emotionally frustrating, because these characters never seem to want to help themselves. And it’s not as if they don’t have the skills or talent to do so — Robbie has an amazing voice, Susheela is a dedicated nurse, Vincent shows promise as a writer and Ellie wins a scholarship to a private school — but they all seem to make bad choices, one after the other, to the point that you begin to wonder whether perhaps they deserve all the bad things that happen to them.
Once Upon a Time in England isn’t a particularly cheery read, but it’s packed with raw emotion and it would be a hard-hearted person indeed who didn’t find themselves keeping their fingers crossed that the Fitzgeralds might just survive the 1970s and 1980s unscathed. I thought this was a wonderful easy-to-read book that packs a painful, and surprising, punch right at the very end. I don’t want to damn it with faint praise, but I do think it would make an excellent book group choice because there’s so much in it worthy of discussion.