Linda Newbery's books have so far been mainly for young adults – though my own favourite, Lob, a take on the legend of the Green Man, is a story for younger children. A deeply satisfying story, it draws from myth, but is also a very real and human tale about the cycle of life: about death and renewal.
Her latest novel is her first for adults. This is an eagerly anticipated event, so I’m really thrilled that I am able to make Quarter Past Two On A Wednesday Afternoon the subject of the first review on my new blog, and I'm very grateful to Doubleday for sending me a copy.
The mystery at the centre of Quarter Past Two begins with a disappearance. Anna and her big sister Rose are in the garden on a summer afternoon. Anna is bored, and at a quarter past two, she goes off to the shops. When she returns, Rose has gone. A few of her things are missing, but she has left no note, no clue as to what has happened to her: she has simply vanished.
Twenty years later, Rose's family are still none the wiser as to her fate, and none of them, but particularly Sandra, her mother, and Anna herself, are able to break free from the aftershock of her disappearance. Anna drifts from one non-consequential job to another, from one boyfriend to another, seemingly with an urge to self-destruct when anything looks as if it might become permanent; she can't rest, she can't settle. Sandra refuses to discuss what has happened, but the brittle carapace she has built round herself looks as if it’s beginning to crack. Is she beginning to suffer from dementia, or is something else going on?
It looks at this stage as if the book is going to be a murder mystery, and Anna does take on the rôle of a detective – feeling that perhaps if she can find out what happened to Rose, she will be able to move on more effectively with her own life. But the narrative begins to twist and turn; Anna makes unexpected discoveries and meanwhile, her own life seems to be spiraling out of control. The story becomes broader and deeper. It’s like one of those Russian dolls; the outer one comes apart to reveal another underneath – and then that too reveals another, and another, and another. Nothing seems to be telling us what happened to Rose, but all sorts of other secrets begin to emerge, till we see that this apparently ordinary family has not one but several tragedies at its heart, which all impinge on one another.
Linda Newbery takes her time with this story – more so, perhaps, than she would have done had it been intended for young adults. The structure is complex, as the narrative emerges from the viewpoints of Anna and her mother at several different points in their lives. Something else which is possible because this is an adult novel is an ending which contains uncertainties, which is not at all what the reader – well, this reader anyway – would have expected. (Which would make it a brilliant book for book groups: so much to discuss! Could it – should it – have happened like this…?)
With this accomplished and subtle story, Linda Newbery shows that no age group is beyond her reach.