Joyce has been an actress and a radio playwright before she became a novelist. So, it would be fair to say that she has probably read, heard and written her fair share of stories. I think this might be why she is so good at thinking up unusual ones. This is her second novel, I liked her first, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and I liked this one, too.
The chapters take turns to tell two stories. One is in 1972, when two boys are friends and one occurrence changes the course of the lives of an entire family. The other is in present time, as we see how the life of one of the boys has turned out. It is mostly about mental illness, and what can happen when it is not dealt with skilfully, as it certainly was not in the 70s, and many would argue is certainly is not in present times. It is also about friendship, the kind we have as kids, the kind we have as adults, and a more sinister kind, with secrets and manipulation at the heart of it.
The 70s chapters are told from the perspective of an eleven year old boy. It is well done. His mum makes a friend who is not entirely her friend. The little boy cannot make out for sure if this friend is good or bad and neither can I. The mother in the story finds it hard to make friends because of her background and that good old class divide that may well have been more of a boundary in the 70s than it is now. So, finally when she does find someone that she can open up to it is very sad that this person is a bit of a gold-digger.
The story is a tragedy, but the real tragedy is that mental illness can affect families so frequently in real life. We kind of have an uplifting ending to the novel but you cannot escape the feeling of “if only,” if only someone had been able to help with the early onset of the problems then lives would not have been lost or wasted. Beautifully told.