*I received a free copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review, as part of the author’s Books and the Bear blog tour.*
Blurb: Sometimes hope has a way of changing everything…
Just hours after giving birth, Eli Bell is forced to give up her newborn baby daughter for adoption. Devastated, she tries desperately to rebuild her shattered life.
Then, over thirty years later, Eli catches sight of her daughter. And she knows that she must do everything to find a way back into her life. Even if it means lying…
While her husband Tommy must grow to accept his own part in the events of her early life, he can only try to save her before her obsession with the young woman ruins them both.
It is the intimacy of this novel that draws you in. Em Muslin has opened a window into the lives of an ordinary couple, struggling with the consequences of a squalid tragedy and the everyday troubles of living on little money with no support from rather unpleasant family and friends. Even the couple themselves are exposed in all their flaws: pickle-smelling, wrinkles and scars, explosions of temper and niggled spite, cowardice and petty theft. Lies. Big and little lies.
And yet still the reader is gently pulled and coaxed, wheedled and beguiled into not just feeling pity for these characters but knowing them and caring about what happens to them. The interspersion of Eli’s first person love letter to her lost child with the third person narrative, switching between Eli and Tommy’s perspectives, enhances that feeling of intimacy: we see the characters’ thoughts and motivations, dreams and desires, and therefore cannot escape feeling sympathy, empathy, understanding.
The setting for the story is gently nostalgic: small-town and sepia-toned. You are transported into a time of dusty hopscotch and houseproud housewives; the scent of engine oil and faded flowers shimmering in the hazy heat. There are no modern conveniences, no social media, mobile phones or internet. Finding someone involves queuing at the records office or driving around hopelessly hoping that you might just bump into them in the local store. The sense of isolation and loneliness is aching.
Yet Tommy and Eli cling to each other and bolster each other through all their flaws, misunderstandings and miscommunications. Their love and strength as a couple seems somehow more genuine for the ordinariness of it: no great passion this, just two people caring about each other’s happiness and comfort. They each have their ‘disappointing’ moments – Eli ignoring everything and everyone in her single-minded obsession with a stranger, and Tommy allowing his guilt and self-anger to lash out at the very person he least wants to hurt. But these moments make them more human, more real; and the reader is left in no doubt that this is a relationship that can withstand anything that the world throws at it, because they see the faults and love in spite of them.
However this is not a love story about a man and a woman. This is a love story between a mother and her child, and it is a terribly sad one, with (thankfully) a happy ending. Em Muslin takes the reader from the depths of the despair and derangement of a broken woman, stumbling through her days, to the hope of ordinary happiness: ice creams, snowmen and someone to hold you tight no matter what. Buy tissues.
Often I’d lie awake in the dead of night, whilst he lay sleeping next to me, and I would think of you. I would think of you and me. I’d imagine us feeling snowflakes against our skin. The cold tiptoe of a snowflake on our rosy cheeks. Tiptoeing, tap dancing on our skin. Melting. No one else would be around and only our footprints would be seen in the snow. I’d place my footprints in yours and yours in mine, and we’d become one. I would press my cheek against yours and I’d hold you, and this time, in the dead of night, this time, I promise I would never let you go.
– Em Muslin, Before You Were Mine