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On a cold, dark, Christmas night, in the depths of a Scottish winter, an old lady dies alone, surrounded by her meagre treasures in a rundown small flat. Two weeks later, a woman in the midst of her own life crisis arrives to try and find a name and a family for the lost old lady – and in doing so, finds her own.
Margaret Penny is forty seven, broke, unemployed, and friendless. Reeling from a relationship break-up, she abandons her depressing life in London to return home to her mother’s flat in dark, cold, Edinburgh. With no plans and no prospects, Margaret accepts the offer of a lowly temp job at the Office for Lost People where she is set the task of finding the next-of-kin of a recently deceased elderly woman. The investigation into lonely old Mrs Walker’s sad life leads Margaret to revelations about her own.
This is not a happy tale. Life in Edinburgh is damp, dark, and freezing. This is not Alexander McCall Smith’s quirky handsome Edinburgh. The city is “grey skies, grey buildings, grey pavements all encased in ice. And the people too.” The people of Edinburgh are cold, hardened, and constantly in each other’s business. Margaret is forced to move in with her reclusive mother and, after thirty years of having lived apart, their relationship is strained, to say the least.
“Home. It wasn’t where Margaret’s heart was. But at least it was somewhere to run.” There are long-held grudges and secrets on both sides. Neither woman is in a particularly happy place in her life. “It would be typical to come home for her mid-life crisis, only to discover that her mother’s end-of-life crisis was well under way.”
The story alternates between Margaret’s present-day investigations into the old Mrs Walker, and flashbacks into both Margaret and Mrs Walker’s pasts. The glimpses of life in London during the Blitz are fascinating. From mental asylums to backstreet abortionists, the book takes the reader into rather gritty and depressing places, inhabited by some rather tragic, miserable, and thoroughly unlikeable characters.
This is a bleak but riveting read about families and secrets. It is not at all an uplifting tale but it is one that will have you reflecting on its characters for some time afterwards. An ambitious and layered story from a new Scottish author.
Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis
The Other Mrs Walker
by Mary Paulson-Ellis
Published by Mantle