Monday 12 December 2016

How To Be Brave by Louise Beech

Book review from Carol Sampson

It is just a normal day. Not quite like every other because Natalie and her nine year old daughter Rose are dressed in Halloween costumes ready for Trick or Treating, but normal in every other sense. Natalie is grumpy after spending hours carving the pumpkin and Rose is misbehaving. As they are verbally sparring in the kitchen Natalie is thrown into turmoil as Rose collapses.

“When I turned, the world had changed. It was quiet, slow. There were no whispers, no bad words or swearwords, only Rose falling, her mouth moving, as if she were reading in our book nook. I couldn’t hear the swirl of syllables, yet something in their rhythm gave me deja-vu. I tried to read her lips; What are you telling me? I wanted to scream.”

While waiting at the hospital a man in a brow suit, bearing military medals, chats to Natalie. She assumes he is dressed in authentic wartime clothing for Halloween. He is a stranger to Natalie but talking with him brings her comfort. When the nurse appears to speak with Natalie the man has disappeared.

Rose is diagnosed with a serious condition requiring medication for the rest of her life. Rose rebels at this new way of life and Natalie must find ways to ensure Rose complies with her treatment. With her husband, Jake, away on tour in Afghanistan this presents Natalie with an exhausting challenge.

In the coming days Natalie begins to dream of the sea and a man who feels familiar. It is only when Rose disappears and is found in the shed, explaining that the man in her dreams told her to go there,  that Natalie realises Rose has seen him too.

“He comes to see me in the dark…he smells kind of…you know, like the fish and chips at Hornsea? He said last night that he’d meet me in here, near the boxes.’

As the pain and inflexibility of daily treatment becomes a reality for Rose, she shuts Natalie out, refusing to accept this new way of life and Natalie becomes creative to meet the challenges her daughter sets. Through the telling of a story both Natalie and Rose become engrossed in the life of an ancestor, stranded at sea.

The narrative switches between the challenges faced by their relative on the lifeboat and that of the daily struggle with Rose’s condition. The story stretches across the years as the man in the boat and Rose help each other to be strong. A bridge between the generations allow them to provide comfort to each other.

Louise Beech has written a very powerful account of the suffering experienced by the seaman and his shipmates, adrift in the ocean, rationing out food and trying to stay alive against all odds. Meanwhile Rose and Natalie are learning how to cope with their new routine. All are learning ‘How to be Brave’.

The story is skilfully written, capturing the essence of human nature. It shows that it is not a weakness to accept the help of others and that we all need each other to survive. Life is not about facing challenges alone but that by allowing others to help, the suffering is eased.

Natalie frequently suffers bouts of guilt. Firstly in not recognising Rose’s condition and then for losing her temper when tired and frustrated. Similarly, the man on the boat lost his temper, struck a young man when exhausted and weak, and regretted it until the day he died. Rose exonerates them both with her wise words.

“when you feel that tired you always act mean to the ones you like most. I just wish he didn’t feel so bad afterwards. Cos he really wasn’t.”

This captivating and moving story is well written, engaging and a delight to read. Inspiration for the story came from Louise Beech’s own experiences and makes compelling reading.

Thank you to Orenda Books for the review copy.
You can follow Louise on Twitter: @LouiseWriter

You can also follow Carol on Twitter: @carol_sampson55

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