Fiction – Kindle edition; Ward Wood Publishing; 242 pages; 2012.
Bittersweet and delightful are the two words that best sum up V.G. Lee’s Always You, Edina.
This family drama, set in Birmingham, England in the 1960s, is told through the eyes of Bonnie Benson, an only child, who idolises her Aunt Ed (of the title) but is too young to appreciate why other people don’t hold her in such high regard.
The story swings between the past and the present as a middle-aged Bonnie visits her 89-year-old grandmother in a residential care home and recalls the year that changed all their lives forever.
A surprisingly good read
I will admit that I did not expect to like this book when it was chosen as my book group’s November read. When I ordered my copy online I couldn’t help but think it looked self-published (it’s not).
Yet Lee is an established author with four novels and a short story collection to her name. She is also a stand-up comedian, which may explain why this book is so outrageously funny in places and why, even amongst the pathos of Bonnie’s childhood, there is a dark seam of humour running throughout.
A few pages in I got used to the plain prose style and the lengthy descriptions of what people were wearing — “I wore a pea-green linen trouser suit. Around my neck I’d looped a scarf in a silvery thread, one of my own designs” — and found myself getting drawn into a rather intriguing domestic drama in which Aunt Ed was akin to “Gina Lollobrigida and Grace Kelly — fire and ice” and whose “breasts stormed into the room ahead of her”.
In fact it is Aunt Ed, the glamorous character at the heart of this story and whom we only see through 11-year-old Bonnie’s eyes, that makes the novel such a charming, slightly naughty, read.
‘I wish I had hair like Aunt Ed,’ I said.
‘It’s out of a bottle.’
‘What do you mean?’ I imagined hair pouring like liquid gold from a fairytale flagon.
‘Ed has a hairdresser friend who comes to their house and does it for her but don’t tell anyone I said so.’
‘Does what for her?’
‘Dyes her hair of course. You didn’t think it was natural, did you?’
‘So could I have hair that colour?’
‘Over my dead body.’ Mum leant out of the window.
Coming of age story
Always You, Edina is essentially a coming-of-age tale. Bonnie, a pre-teen in the 1960s when children were still seen but not heard, is too young to comprehend the complicated relationships between the adults in her life: her parents, unhappily married, and her Aunt Ed and Uncle Brian, who seem smitten with each other. But it’s clear to the reader that there are inappropriate dalliances occurring that are beyond a child’s ken.
They are always arguing now. The grown-ups. Their rows are like little bonfires that they take turns in starting up, then along comes Gran with a bucket of water. Some hissing, some crackling, and usually the bonfire goes out.
Not a great deal happens plot wise: the story more or less charts the ups and downs of Bonnie’s life — her crush on her popular classmate Joanna Bayliss, her star turn in the class play, her mixed feelings for her cousin Susan, who pushes her down the stairs — but it’s so vividly told it’s hard not to keep turning the pages.
And Bonnie is such a delightful character: good-natured, clever and naive, all at the same time.
Always You, Edina isn’t a quick read, but it’s one to enjoy lingering over. The Bensons, including Bonnie’s cantankerous outspoken grandmother, are wonderful fun: Brummies brimming with heart, attitude — and carefully kept secrets.