Three generations of women confront difficult situations in this rich, complex and thoughtful novel

In this long, thoughtful novel, Jenny Downham presents the archetypal trio of maiden, mother and crone in a very modern situation. Before the book begins, Katie, the teenage heroine, has impulsively kissed her best friend, Esme. Now she faces difficult questions about her sexuality and homophobic taunting from Esme’s new friends. They refuse to let the incident go, even when Katie joins them in laughing at Simona, another girl at school who is known to be gay.

Oblivious to all this, Katie’s mother, Caroline, pushes her to excel at school and to look after her younger brother, Chris, who has special needs. Stressed and unhappy, Caroline is near breaking point when, at the start of the book, her estranged mother, Mary, suddenly reappears. Mary has dementia and her partner, Jack, has just died, leaving her with no possible carer – except Caroline. But this is not a gloomy book. It’s a rich, complex story full of interesting relationships.

From that first moment, in the hospital where Jack has just died, Katie sympathises with Mary. While Caroline spends hours on the phone desperately trying to get Mary into residential care, Katie tries to stimulate her grandmother’s memory. She writes down Mary’s stories, makes a wall of pictures to remind her of the past and follows her as she wanders round the neighbourhood.

These wanderings are crucial to the story in two ways. The first is that Mary insists on returning, over and over again, to a particular cafe – where Simona works. At first, Katie is embarrassed and Simona is wary, but gradually they are attracted to each other. They are also related to the central mystery: why has Mary been an absent mother and grandmother? Katie starts piecing together old stories and documents, trying to understand why her mother is so hostile to Mary. This is explored in a subtle narrative that moves between past and present, told sometimes from Mary’s point of view and sometimes from Katie’s.

Although Katie’s detective work drives the story, it is firmly anchored in the present and is, above all, a book about people. Characters are strongly developed, not defined by their labels. We share their awareness of the world through dozens of tiny details, such as Katie’s hypersensitivity to the tilt of Simona’s neck and Mary’s longing for Jack as she misses “the heat of him”.

Although he dies before the book begins, Jack is vividly present. His love and care for Mary are cleverly evoked in various ways, increasing the reader’s sympathy for her and providing Katie with practical hints about how to help her grandmother.

Caroline is the only one who is remote and opaque. We hear her raging at social workers but never see inside her head. Slowly it becomes obvious that this is no accident: her remoteness is part of the central mystery. But the puzzle never dominates the characters. Mary’s apparently random comments – about her sister Pat’s headaches, or her plastic model of Wolf Mountain – turn out, much later, to be important clues. But at the time they are valid glimpses of her scrambled view of the world and they underpin the final revelations in a solid and satisfying way.

The book closes with an idyllic snapshot of hope and happiness, but it is not The End. Puzzles may be solved, but people never stop developing.

Originally posted on The Guardian.