Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Book review: Life, Death and Vanilla Slices by Jenny Eclair

My edition: Paperback, published on 5 July 2012 by Sphere, 352 pages.

Description: Jean Collins is in a coma. She stepped out into the middle of the road without looking and was run over by a motorbike.

But what had distracted her? And why was she carrying a box of vanilla slices - the cream cakes she only ever bought for special celebrations?

For Jean's daughter Anne, these questions are the least of her concern. Travelling back up north to visit her mother, Anne frets about leaving her two sons behind in London - boys who are rapidly becoming men, and not very pleasant ones at that.

And there are secrets waiting for Anne, back in the house where she grew up. Secrets she doesn't want to think about - that she buried a long time ago...

Rating:

 

The cover of Life, Death and Vanilla Slices looks cutesy and fun, but don't go in expecting this to be a fluffy chick-lit read (like I did), because it's anything but that. Because of my wrong assumption of the novel when picking it up it took me a few chapters to get used to the gritty reality the characters were facing, but when I had familiarised myself with the tone of the story it did manage to pull me in and I was completely sold.

Middle-aged Anne hasn't seen her mother Jean in a very long time. Although they speak on the phone every Sunday they don't really know what's going on in each other's lives, in fact the two are almost strangers to one another. When Jean is run over by a motorbike and ends up in a coma, Anne is forced to leave her own family in Dulwich and make the trip to Blackpool, where she grew up, to visit her mother and face the ghosts from her past. 

Initially this seems a very straightforward story of estranged family members that reunite but the reader quickly realises there are many things between mother and daughter that have never been spoken out loud and they've both been suffering the consequences as a result.

Written in dual narrative (and a third one thrown in every now and again when another perspective is needed) Anne's chapters primarily focus on the here and now, with flashbacks into the past when a place or situation triggers a memory, whereas her mother Jean works back from a faraway past into a more recent one as she, while still in a coma, "files away" the memories that got all jumbled up in the accident.

The novel is unbelievably intriguing as one family secret after another gets revealed and the reader can feel nothing but heartbreak for both Jean and Anne, despite the wrong choices the two have made themselves along the way. Some of the things they've done are certainly not inexcusable, but what they've been through does explain a lot of their irrational actions. Jean, and to an extend Anne, suffered tremendously and the two never really got the chance to form a proper mother and daughter bond as a result.

Even after all these years there are still many things left unsaid between Jean and Anne and while there perhaps is little chance for them to form a healthy and happy bond after all these years, as a reader I wanted nothing more than for Jean to explain to her daughter why she acted so coldly towards her as a child and for Anne to forgive her mother so they can savour what little time they may have left together.

Written incredibly engaging, Jenny Eclair's writing completely pulled me into Life, Death and Vanilla Slices until the stage where I was finishing reading the novel at 2am in the morning, on a work day, because I simply could not put it down.

The only reason I gave it 4 stars instead of 5 is because I felt the ending left somewhat to be desired. In a few rushed sentences we finally learn what happened all those years ago but the reader never gets to witness how this news impacts the characters. Nor does it seem that anyone but Jean uncovers what she did in those final moments before she hit the pavement.

Perhaps it's the eternal optimist in me, craving a happily ever after (which this book has not) but I would've liked for Anne to have something positive to come out of it all. Especially because there is not much for her to look forward to upon her return in Dulwich; bratty and out of control teenaged sons and a husband who doesn't seem to love her. A little positivity in her life by ways of someone to visit in Blackpool would've been a welcome change, I'm sure.


Many thanks to Sphere for the proof copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review!

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