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Once Upon a Time in England - General Discussion

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Finished this morning over a cup of tea.

I am trying to find the words to describe why I rate this book so highly. There aren't many happy moments - and those that are there are quickly dashed on the shores of dissapointment. I think it's that Helen Walsh handles the task of telling a story so well. The fact that she writes about a family who have so many things working against them doesn't stop her from telling the tale in such a readable and engaging manner. Top marks to her - the story itself is, frankly, not the sort I would normally bother with, but I found myself hooked on it, right from the start.

Apart from the story - a sad sequence of events taking place over a 15 year period - there are the main characters. Robbie, bless him, a singer with great potential who has his chance of a crack at stardom snatched from him in a manner that even he doesn't understand for many years, by which time it's too late to stop the sequence of events that have been taking place. Sheila, doing her best to fit in, but reluctant to lose the ties to her homeland. Then there are the two children, whose lives, we are led to believe, are the result of the attack on their mother. Is that fair? I think so, it's certainly the inference you get from the way the story is told. Should we feel sorry for the children, despite the fact that they are not particularly likeable?

Come to think of it, am I being unfair here? I liked Vincent when he was 10, but as an 18 year old, I found him distinctly unloveable. In fact, the words "self-centred" and "shallow" come to mind. And Ellie was even worse. And whilst I enjoyed the story, I felt a little uncomfortable at the way all of the problems that the characters experienced were (apparently) the result of the attack on Sheila. Because she was raped, Sheila could never bring herself to experience any intimacy with her husband --> he ended up having an affair --> he left his wife and family --> the children had no-one to recognise their problems or to help the handle those problems --> they both ended up with a drug problem. And so on.

The fact that both Sheila and Vicent were attacked by anonymous skinheads did rather feel like a cop-out on the writer's behalf. Is she trying to say that all of the problems in the story are the result of racist white kids? There's certainly no attempt to create any characters, they are just as described - white, racist skinheads.

I'm not knocking the story, just jotting down some of the thoughts I'm left with having finished the book. It's not pleasant reading, but it's memorable stuff and I do give it a hearty recommendation.

 

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I read this months ago (one of the benefits of working for a publisher), so forgive me if my memory is a bit inaccurate.

 

 

My heart really went out to Vincent, even though he was a bit annoying. His teenage angst and obsession with his looks (perhaps the only thing he felt kept him going, his beauty) culminated in his suicide.

 

Ellie, on the other hand, I thought was the only bright spark in the whole book - and then I was crushed when she was clearly going completely off the rails (I was raised quite sheltered, so I can't imagine being that wild at 13!).

 

As for Robbie and Susheela, I felt I could understand why they did what they did, even when they made bad choices (Susheela, in not telling Robbie about the rape; Robbie, in leaving his family).

 

I was really sucked into this book, and I'm not ashamed to say I was crying for the Fitzgeralds by the end.

 

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I was away when the Canongate offer was on so I hadn't picked this up. But on Thursday I was in Waterstones in Edinburgh and this really caught my eye. The cover is light, bright and the blurb really tempted me.

 

Imagine my surprise - then - to find later that day that I have inherited a copy from the Canongate offer. This will be my new read and I'm really looking forward to it. Hope to offer feedback sometime over Easter.

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I've just finished this book and I'm struggling to find words that don't sound like a bad cover quote - stunning, monumentous, moving, shocking, powerful... You see my problem.

 

Without the Canongate offer, I probably wouldn't have read this book, certainly not in hardback. The subject matter is harsh, even brutal and the story has few (if any) lighter moments. The reason I rate it so highly, it seems so credible, so well set in it's place and time, so understanding of society and class.

 

The pace of the novel is also impressive,

at the end of the first part I was on the edge of my seat willing Robbie to get home in time to save Susheela. The second part reflects the turgid reality of real life in a suburban unhappy marriage. Then at the end, the drugs, club-life, the highs and lows of the teenagers, all ring true.

 

 

The children are teenagers in the third part of the book, set in 1989, a time when I was out and about clubbing and embracing the same music as Vincent. I could relate to him, enjoying being cool and desirable after his years of being bullied.

 

And the end...

I can't remember the last time a book made me cry.

 

 

The two previous posts have spoilered their reviews, but I can tell you that both of them are also positive, so if you've been delaying reading your copy, bump it up the pile a bit, but be prepared for an emotional ride.

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Spoilers Throughout

 

Once Upon a Time in England - where to start? The initial ingredients are: the 1970s, the north of England, and a mixed marriage. You know something bad is going to happen.

 

Robbie is a carrot headed man of Irish heritage, living in Warrington. He sings with showbands and goes down a storm. Susheela is a Malay Indian from Kuala Lumpur who came to England to train as a nurse and find a husband. She found Robbie. Helen Walsh visits the family at three significant times - 1975, 1981 and 1989. In the first installment, Robbie and Susheela are in love; they have a young son Vincent and Susheela is expecting a second. But there are already tensions. The couple already seem to be divided on the question of exotic spice - whether in food (Susheela would like some, Robbie wouldn’t) or in life in general. Robbie finds himself ostracized for his mixed marriage and he seems to find escape in his singing. Meanwhile, Susheela is threatened, and before long is raped in her own home by a gang of skinheads as part of a racial assault. Susheela tries to play it down - she decides to tell neither the police nor Robbie what really happened, but in truth she has lost her confidence for ever. By way of escape, she aims to integrate herself into white suburbia, surrounding herself with symbols of bland safety. And from this unpromising start, the family’s lives start to unravel over the course of the next fourteen years.

 

The success of the novel is the enormity of what it takes on. It addresses a whole heap of social issues - race, mixed marriage, rape, homosexuality, queer bashing, drugs, social class, adultery, ambition, and the list goes on. Yet the skill is that it never feels as though it is ticking issues off on a list. Susheela is not a token Asian; Vincent is not a token gay; Ellen is not a token teenage rebel. Nobody is there to play a part, rather the story unravels around people who are, simply, themselves. That results in a work that is very engaging, very credible and very intense. The depth of the problems and issues makes for a very rich experience.

 

It’s also striking that Helen Walsh avoided the trap of creating one-dimensional victims. To a great extent, the characters do not help themselves. There is the feeling that, for example, Vincent is not bullied because he is black, but because he is weak. There is wrong choice after wrong choice. Moving to Thelwall; not reporting the rape; choosing the wrong school bag; buying the wrong car; going to the wrong school; ... It is a catalogue of distasters, some of which might even be funny if they were not so tragic. This is lightened by the occasional glimmer of hope - Ellie’s scholarship to the private school; Vincent’s writing prize; Robbie’s affair; Susheela’s friendship with (horrors) Robbie’s boss’s wife. But each hope proves to be a false dawn.

 

The end of the novel is very tragic. Vinnie is set upon by the skinheads - a clear parallel to Susheela’s rape. But it is unclear whether he was set upon for being black, being gay, or both. And again, in a parallel to Susheela’s situation, Vinnie chooses to keep the details to himself and to spurn love when it is offered. Like Susheela, he is ruined by the attack. But, perhaps unlike Susheela, he recognizes it. And as the sole witness to Susheela’s attack, perhaps he has been primed to deal with the aftermath. The result, as Vinnie meets his maker on a wave of heroin rush, is both squalid and noble.

 

The novel is not without fault. There are a couple of glaring anachronisms. And more worryingly, the first thirty or forty pages felt like wading through a thick fog of alliteration and flowery language that obscured all meaning. Perhaps this died back after the opening chapters or perhaps the rape had an immediacy that broke through the over-writing. But once the first tension has been built, and seen through to a horrific denouement, there is nothing more to distract - just pure, raw, deep emotion.

 

Once Upon a Time in England is a valuable testament to the times and places it describes. 1970s and 1980s England was a hard place to grow up. Young people had to make conscious decisions about whether to take a path of racism and bigotry, or whether to take a more liberal view. Many felt enormous social pressure to swing to the right. This is an unsentimental depiction of the effect that such decisions, such pressure had on fellow man.

 

Once Upon a Time in England is an excellent antidote to 70s and 80s nostalgia. They were not glory days, they were hard times.

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Hmmmm...did no one else read their free copies? I'm not sure if it's fair to blag a copy, read it and then not comment. Not really playing the game, what?

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I wonder if some of the people who read the book are concerned about posting negatively about it if they didn't like it?

 

I can understand that since you received the book free so it may feel churlish to write a critical review. However, I shouldn't think there is a book anywhere that hasn't had a bad word said about it - at the moment some negative views are being aired about Antony and Cleopatra elsewhere in the site and you can't get a writer of much greater reputation than Shakespeare!

 

I think Canongate would understand that healthy debate about a book - including negative comments - is actually much healthier than a series of Amazon-style friends' comments that all say the book is brilliant. (No suggestion, of course, that this is what has happened here - just an illustrative example! ;) ).

 

There were aspects of The Poison that Fascinates that I didn't like and I certainly thought carefully about how I wanted to say that, but I still think it's important that honest views are shared.

 

So, if that's why some of you are holding back, please don't worry about it.

 

Alternatively, it may simply be that people haven't got around to it yet, so don't forget to post your thoughts when you've finished!

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I wonder if some of the people who read the book are concerned about posting negatively about it if they didn't like it?

 

I can understand that since you received the book free so it may feel churlish to write a critical review.

I was a little concerned about posting negatively, especially since I only read the first thirty pages before finding the particular language style of the author was very much not to my taste.

 

So I passed my copy on to MrHobgoblin, who's reviewed it above. That's one of the free copies answered for, and he enjoyed it far more than me :)

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So I passed my copy on to MrHobgoblin, who's reviewed it above. That's one of the free copies answered for, and he enjoyed it far more than me :)

Can't say fairer than that!

 

:)

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I am 3/4 way through and am completely hooked on it. I really didn't think I was going to like it but has turned out to be one of the best books I've read this year. Will post my thoughts when I have finished it.

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Blimey - glowing reviews all round, I am beginning to think I should have put my hand up for this! I'll wait for the paperback though!

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Finished this last night and it was an amazing book. I wasn't really sure whether I was going to enjoy this one but by the end of the second page I was mesmerised. The characters and setting were so well described that I found I didn't have to imagine them at all, they were there in my head instantly. Even though there were no edge of your seat moments it held me spellbound to the end, for once I held back finishing it as I honestly didn't want it to end. The story and characters were so real, you could almost being living next door to them. Thankyou Canongate for this book, if I had seen it in the bookshop and read the blurb on the back I never would have bought it. I will definately be recommending this to friends and other book groups I belong to. :)

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Thankyou Canongate for this book, if I had seen it in the bookshop and read the blurb on the back I never would have bought it.
I'd second that. Must be a particular challenge for a publisher!

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I have just finished this book and I think I enjoyed it though I don't know how I can say I enjoyed it when it was not happy reading but I did like it, in a grim, sad way. The writing was beautiful and set the scene very well.

 

I felt the most empathy for Susheela - how hard it must be to live in another country, away from your parents and brothers when you are happy and life is great, yet alone when it has dealt you a hand like it did to her in the story. That saying though I found I wanted to shake her and convince her to tell Robbie the truth of the attack - then perhaps they could find happiness together again.

 

Ellie came across as a spoilt child which I think was the intention. Vinnie was troubled and misunderstood but that didn't stop me from wanting to slap him and tell him to stop being so self absorbed! His school days were not an easy read and made me stop to think about the effects of bullying on a person.

 

Overall I think this book was brilliantly written and the story both heartbreaking and poignant - I did find tears in my eyes at the end.

 

Having read Helen Walsh's first book, Brass, I was prepared for a good story that could both shock me and enthrall me.....and I wasn't disappointed.

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Firstly, may I offer my abject apologies to both Cannongate and BGO for being so dilatory in reading and reviewing this book. It was placed on my TBR pile and I honestly forgot it was there. A reminder from one of our wonderful mods nudged be over to the pile and I have now read it - thanks David.

 

I have to admit that initially the subject matter and language used was very off-putting. On more than one occasion I was heard to mutter 'I do not like this book'. I persisted, and have to admit that after a few chapters I was hooked into the story and could not put it down.

 

Having finished the book I now realise that this subject required the language used. Whilst I found it hard to read about sexual desires, violence and rape, it was balanced with good writing that told a great story. To pussy-foot around the subject with softer, gentler language would have taken all the impact from it.

 

This book was definitely character driven. Robbie was shown as a saint as well as a sinner. Susheela was the beautiful wife who suffered emotionally. The children were beautiful in many ways, but also flawed by something deep within them. It was all writ large; beauty/ugliness, good/bad, black and white.

 

And although this was about the struggle for a coloured person and her children to survive in this country at that time, it was also about personal wants and desires, trying to achieve something in a lifetime, to better oneself in a world of commercialism and acquisitiveness.

 

Robbie worked so hard initially to provide for his family both materially and emotionally. Susheela withdrew into herself after the rape and failure to communicate ruined what they had. The children were 'spared the rod' and so were 'spoilt', as Susheela remarks. Like most parents, she wanted her children to have it all but in giving them all the material things and opportunities she failed them because they had no disciplinary line to toe.

 

I found Vincent's bullying very hard to read. Having had a child who was bullied at school I wanted to scream at Susheela; wanted her to see what was happening to her son. I think Walsh opened up Vincent's character so very well as the years went by; getting under his skin and letting the reader feel what it must be like to be different in more ways than one.

 

I found it easy to empathise with Susheela at the point when she is called to the hospital after Vincent's mugging and wants to find Ellie to take her with her. She is a soul divided trying to decide whether to continue looking for her daughter or go to her son. A mother's dilemma beautifully written.

 

At this point too, the realisation that both her children have been deceiving her and are into drugs is also incredibly well drawn. The anger at the deception, the disappointment that they could do that, the sorrow of their suffering and need to try and put matters right. It was all there and made Susheela come alive on the page for me.

 

At the end I was, like several others, in tears. Thank you Cannongate for providing me with this book. It has been a read that will probably stay with me for a long time.

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It has been a read that will probably stay with me for a long time.

 

Absolutely. It's 4 months since I finished the book (time enough for me to have forgotten it entirely!), and I often find myself recalling the characters and scenes.

 

A book that deserves to be read.

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