The Other Mrs Walker by Mary Paulson-Ellis is a complex story of familial female relationships, both between mother and daughter over two generations, as well between sisters. The mother’s natural instinct to love and protect her child, however, is thrown out of the window here, and is replaced with dysfunctional childhood memories of neglect and abuse. It is also the story of how mental illness was stigmatised during the early twentieth century.
This dysfunctionality is highlighted at the outset when the protagonist, Margaret, returns to her home town of Edinburgh, on New Year’s Eve 2011, following thirty years of working and living in London. She arrives on her mother’s doorstep, but rather than being welcomed home she is greeted with ‘what are you doing here?’ The protagonist isn’t particularly likeable; we soon learn she has neglected her mother over the years and is only returning to her home town as she has nowhere else to go: ‘it wasn’t where Margaret’s heart was. But at least it was somewhere to run.’ We also learn she thinks nothing of taking what doesn’t belong to her: her coat is stolen and contains a clementine stolen from a market stall.
The novel is rich with symbols. Not only does the protagonist return to Edinburgh on the spin of her mother’s old coronation crown, the stolen clementine acts as a portal into the past storyline. Past and present storylines begin to intertwine when Margaret gets a job trying to ascertain the identity of an old woman who has died alone in a cold and empty flat: ’the only heirloom Mrs Walker appeared to have left behind was an orange’.
There are many layers to this complex plot, where the past story arc spans over a period between 1929 and 1970 and is not completely chronological. The present storyline is narrated in third person from Margaret’s perspective. The past storyline has a third person omniscient narrator.
Whilst this novel has a complex plot, the narration flows well, enticing the reader to keep turning the pages. Historical context is well written and transports the reader to the era. It will appeal to readers who enjoy something with a mystery to solve, whilst tugging at the heart strings.
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I give this novel 4 out of 5 stars