Nothing Else, by Louise Beech – book review

This review is later than I said it’d be and I’m blaming the writer. I thought I knew what to expect from a Louise Beech novel: exquisitely observed ordinary people in slightly magical surroundings, overcoming life’s twists with a wand of humanity dipped in stardust. And you’d better bring your hanky just in case some of that stardust gets in your eye. Nothing Else brings all of that. It brings some other stuff too, though, and it might take longer than you’d think to get to the end.

Front cover of Nothing Else by Louise Beech

Heather and Harriet are sisters, having been brought up in the streets of industrial Hull. In the 1980s, they were separated after being placed in care following the death of their parents. They do not know what has happened to each other and Heather doesn’t even know if Harriet is alive now (the ‘now’ in the book is, like, now). When they were children, they retreated from the reality of violence, committed on their mother by their dad, by playing the piano at which they were clearly gifted.

The first half of the book is very slow going. By that I mean that I had to step away from it quite often. It’s told from Heather’s point of view. She has never forgotten her younger sister and her memories are embedded in the music that she plays as a teacher and performer. Eventually, she decides to escape and takes a job performing on a cruise. She has asked for her care records, in an attempt to finally discover what has happened to Harriet, and she reads these as she is playing her way from Southampton to New York. Through the care records, the horror of life in that Hull house is slowly revealed. You never quite know what is going to set Robert (dad) off. The violence is (mainly) low level and its power is in its threat, constant and overwhelming. There is love, too, from mother Annie and teacher Mr Hibbert, and between the two sisters. And there is music: melody, memory and rhythm. But there is a revelation that shocks even Heather.

Although I stepped away from time to time to delay hearing of Robert’s abusive antics, I kept coming back to see what triumph might entail. We want happiness for Heather. Now the table of contents at the beginning of the novel indicates that there will be chapters from Harriet’s point of view and so even if Heather doesn’t know that Harriet has survived, we suspect it. And we want happiness for Harriet, too. Beech has made us want the best for them, and if she doesn’t provide it, we’ll fight on their behalf. A wholly improbable turn of events has them back in contact, but a novel has to give us a bit more than a reconciliation: there must be new hurdles to overcome. Such new hurdles cannot be insurmountable – that would be cruel – but nor can they be easily glossed over. Beech understands this and brings things to a conclusion that earns our commitment to Heather, Harriet and minor characters.

This novel explores the role of forgiveness, healing, the bonds between sisters, helplessness, fear, coercion and control. (Phew!) But it also makes us think about the role of music in all these things. It is the music that kept the sisters together and protected them in childhood that indirectly brings them back together and which may make any reconciliation subsequently irrelevant. But for all that music is a special and celebrated form of endeavour, any form of human activity that involves skill and passion could suffice. The kindness of Mr Hibbert is up there with the genius of Chopin when it comes to the moments that can determine our lives. We mere mortals have the power to stir up that stardust. What a beautiful promise.

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.

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