I have to start by saying I enjoyed this accomplished debut novel by Louise Walters very much.
The story opens with Roberta. Roberta works in a second-hand book shop, a shop lovingly piled high with books of all sorts. One of Roberta’s jobs is to sort through books donated to the shop. This is a job she adores as it enables her to collect the letters, postcards and anything else she finds tucked inside the books. When I buy second-hand books (regularly) I find myself scouring them for signs of who might have read it before me. So I could immediately relate to this idea.
“I find things hidden in books: dried flowers, locks of hair, tickets, labels, receipts, invoices, photographs, postcards, all manner of cards. I find letters, unpublished works by the ordinary, the anguished, the illiterate. Clumsily written or eloquent, they are love letters, everyday letters, secret letters and mundane letters, talking about fruit and babies and tennis matches, from people signing themselves as Marjorie or Jean”
Whilst sorting through a collection of books that were her grandmothers, Roberta discovers a letter from her grandfather. The letter was written after the date she believed he had died.
This discovery takes the story back to the second world war to Dorothy, Roberta’s grandmother. During the war, Dorothy meets squadron leader Jan Pietrykowski after his aeroplane crashes into a field behind her house and an unexpected relationship develops.
The book cleverly weaves together the stories, switching easily between the two. Often with novels where there are two stories running along side each other I find myself caring more about one than the other. This wasn’t the case here, both stories shared equal weight and both characters equal importance.
I loved ‘Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase’ for many reasons and not least because so much of it was set in a book shop. There was such a warmth in the writing when books were part of the narrative.
“ ‘Books tell many stories besides those printed on the pages.’……Books smell, they creak, they talk. You hold in your hand now a living, breathing, whispering thing, a book……..’Study books, smell them, hear them. You will be rewarded’ “
There are similarities between Roberta and Dorothy, pride, and a fearless independence, but also loneliness and some regret. For both characters letters are hugely significant and throughout the story letters are used to reveal important information. I loved being reminded of the power of a letter, the anticipation of waiting for one to arrive, the sickening fear of opening it or the untold excitement at what it might contain.
Apart from Roberta and Dorothy there are some other wonderful characters who all bring something extra to the story. I enjoyed the relationship between Dorothy and her ‘land girls’ Aggie and Nina. They gave her the opportunity to become a mother in many different ways. Dorothy’s relationship with the ‘difficult’ Mrs Compton was managed so cleverly and was such a surprising addition to the story.
This is very much a love story. Wartime, passionate, irrational love; the unfathomable love of a child; the heartbreaking love for lost children, platonic love that grows and blossoms and the deep inbuilt love for parents and family.
This is such a lovely story that moves seamlessly between characters and events. It was a joy to read.
If you would like to know more about Louise Walters, have a peruse of her blog.