Today’s book neatly slots in to category two of my Title Fight Reading Challenge 2016: a book with someone’s title in the title. We gratefully received The Other Mrs Walker by Mary Paulson-Ellis from PanMacmillan Australia, after being intrigued by its dark blurb and the promise of a twisty mystery. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Somehow she’d always known that she would end like this. In a small square room, in a small square flat. In a small square box, perhaps. Cardboard, with a sticker on the outside. And a name…
An old lady dies alone and unheeded in a cold Edinburgh flat, on a snowy Christmas night. A faded emerald dress hangs in her wardrobe; a spilt glass of whisky pools on the carpet. A few days later a middle-aged woman arrives back to the city of her birth, her future uncertain, her past in tatters. But what Margaret Penny cannot yet know is that in investigating the death of one friendless old lady, her own life will become enriched beyond measure.
The Other Mrs Walker – a detective story with no detective – is a beautiful, beguiling and intensely moving debut.
Before we get into the meat of this review, let me just warn you that this is a story for which you will need your wits about you. If you are looking for a charming, uplifting, old-lady-meets-a-sorry-end-but-really-lived-a-full-and-extraordinary-life type of novel, you should probably move on right now, because this is a complex, layered story in which the sins of the father (and the mother as well, in this case) are most definitely visited upon successive generations.
The story begins with Margaret’s unwelcome return to her mother’s dingy Edinburgh flat, and her initial experience with the “indigent roster” – the rota of ladies from various church groups who take it in turns to attend the funerals of the city’s unclaimed dead. From this experience, tagging along with her mother, the opportunity arises for Margaret to take on a job searching for the next of kin of unclaimed dead – and it is during her first case that Margaret is introduced to the late Mrs Walker. Margaret’s investigations will take her from Edinburgh to London and back again, and will end up redefining much that Margaret thought about her own family, before an unexpected and satisfying ending.
The story is told in alternating perspectives between Margaret and her mother in the present, and the Walker family in the early 1930s to the Second World War and beyond. I can’t say much about the content here, because all the players are linked and to discuss it would be to spoil much of the plot, but the atmosphere throughout the book is bleak, to put it bluntly. This is one of those books that can’t necessarily be described as “enjoyable” due to the deliberate and pervading atmosphere of loss and the pits of everyday despair and/or chaos in which the characters find themselves. It can, however, be described as compelling, fascinating (in a slow-motion car wreck kind of way) and layered.
The Other Mrs Walker will appeal to those who love a character-driven mystery, where the death has already occurred and all that’s left is to piece together the life that preceded it from a few dismal, throw-away clues. If you’re looking for strong-willed, determined female protagonists, a diverse array of them are presented here, so you can take your pick of the style of strong-willed determination that takes your fancy. If you’re looking for historical fiction that doesn’t shy away from the social improprieties of the time, then you will find plenty of fodder to affirm your concept of the “bad old days” within these pages. And if you’re looking for a mystery that will keep you puzzling until the end and then some, you should appreciate the flow of The Other Mrs Walker.
Until next time,